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Passing the ancestral torch: newfoundlanders pay homage to the resilient Acadian community, while recovering their French Heritage.

If the residents of tile Port-au-Port Peninsula, Newfoundland, are ringing out the old year and ringing in the new with extra fervor, their joie de vivre is well founded.

For one thing, the celebrations mark the end of an extraordinary year--a commemoration of the four hundredth anniversary of l'Acadie Francaise, the first French settlement in North America. In 2004, festivals reverberated throughout New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and especially Nova Scotia, where the third Congres Mondial Acadien welcomed distant relatives to their ancestral home. What's more, the new year promises more milestones in the saga of a people who rebounded from a dizzying round of deportations and new beginnings to reclaim their place in history.

In Newfoundland, part of Canada's Atlantic province of Newfoundland-Labrador, the official anniversary observances took a somewhat different tack. This very anglophone island traces its history to John Cabot, (Giovanni Caboto, sailing for England), who explored these shores in 1497, and Humphrey Gilbert, who claimed the island for England in 1583.

"In Newfoundland we were so cut off from the rest of the population--even the Acadians--that we don't have the same traditions," says Robert Cormier, co-chair of Newfoundland's 2004 Society. He points out that Newfoundland has been a part of Canada only since 1949. "Some of us are Newfoundlanders, not Canadians."

Nevertheless, even a casual glance at the map suggests an early French presence in Newfoundland. All along the deeply serrated coast, where today only English is spoken, French names--Baie Verte, Isle aux Morts, Fleur-de-Lys--encircle the island. Perhaps even more telling are those names that started out French (for example, Havre de Grace, Toulinguet, Isle Rouge) and now read Harbour Grace, Twillingate, and Red Island.

"We were not trying to steal the show," says Francoise Enguehard, executive director of the Societe 2004. "But in fact there's been a French presence in Newfoundland for at least five hundred years." In her office overlooking Water Street in St. John's, she pulls out a sheaf of documents. "The French were extremely organized," she says, leafing through photocopied archives of the French fisheries off the shores of Newfoundland. "They had to be precise because if there was a war they had to be able to call the fishermen into service. Also, the men were paid according to how much they fished." Noting that the ships were required to register in the nearby islands of St.-Pierre-et-Miquelon, she traces a list of individual sailors--from Thomas Hubert, who sailed from Dieppe in 1508, to Jean Denis, from Honfleur, Normandie, in 1506, to a fisherman named Bergeron, also from Honfleur. The year: 1504.

It was the plentiful cod in the waters off Newfoundland--"so thick," according to one account, "that you could scoop them up in a basket"--that attracted Basque fishermen as well as the French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English to the Grand Banks off what is now Canada's eastern most province. The Basques, some say, followed Viking sea routes that led to the islands and mainland of North America. Jacques Cartier, who explored these coasts in 1534--and claimed them for France--mentions already-established communities with French names. Says Enguehard, "That didn't happen overnight." A chronicler who sailed with Gilbert counted "an hundred or more sails of ships" fishing here, belonging to "the Portugals, and French chiefly."

Apart from the place names, little evidence remains of the men who fished seasonally and dried their catch on the coasts of Newfoundland or the small islands off-shore. Still, what Frenchman could exist for long without his bread? Many a village conceals the remains of an ancient oven, a four a pain, just below ground level. "You don't have to dig very far," says Enguehard. "When we excavated traces of those old ovens, we were digging for our history."

On St. John Island, a tiny island opposite the west-coast town of Port-au-Choix, Stella Mailmans scrapes away the dirt to unearth a few bricks. "The fishermen would have had to bring the bricks with them from France," she says. "When they arrived in the spring they would either build a new oven or fix the old one."

The discovery of the old ovens led to a collaborative effort in Port-au-Choix and half a dozen other communities. Master builders from Bretagne, in northwestern France, came to help the locals build their own ovens along the shores, modeled after those constructed by the French fishermen centuries earlier. Like their predecessors, the modern builders used bricks from France combined with local materials.

Even though the town has a perfectly logical French name (mariners have a choice of three sheltered harbors), "Port-au-Choix" derives front the Basque language--in this case "Portuchoa," meaning a little port. Before French fishermen sailed into Port-au Choix, explains Enguehard, Basques were already fishing these shores.

Last summer a Basque marine architect arrived in Port-au-Choix to coach local boat builders in constructing the old fishing vessel known as a chaloupe the predecessor of the dory. "Chaloupes were used for both whaling and cod fishing," says Port-au-Choix native Merlin Hynes, who has worked closely with Christian Ondicola of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Pays Basque (France). "One small problem," adds Hynes as he hand-sands a spar, "was that there was no one to translate for us." Despite its French pedigree, Port-au-Choix no longer has a resident French-speaking population.

Today, even though thousands of French fishermen formerly labored in its harbors, less than 1 percent of Newfoundland's population speaks French. St. John's, the provincial capital, claims a nucleus of francophones, but except for a brief interlude, St. John's has always been a British stronghold. The French maintained their headquarters on the opposite side of the Avalon Peninsula, in Placentia.

Plaisance, as the French called it, was the French capital of Newfoundland from 1662 to 1713. Last year the town served as the site of a gala soiree, complete with period costume, to kick off the five-hundredth anniversary of the French in Newfoundland. Among the honored guests were representatives of both France and the French islands of St.-Pierre-et-Miquelon, just off the southern Newfoundland coast and inextricably linked with the history of the larger island.

The glory days of Plaisance provided the inspiration for two plays that made their debut in St. John's last summer. An energetic young company called "Les Plaisintins" performed alternately in English and French at Cape Spear, the easternmost point of North America, and at the harbor-front park in the heart of the old city.

The local francophone association also established a "Route d'Iberville," though not without controversy. Pierre Lemoyne, Sieur d'Iberville, who later served as first governor of Louisiana, is known in these parts for a bloody campaign against the English.

Meanwhile, in the Maritime Provinces, it was all island on the border between New Brunswick, Canada, and the U.S. state of Maine that took center stage. Pierre du Gua sieur de Monts bad received a grant from Henry IV of France to round the colony of "l'Acadie" in North America. Together with Samuel de Champlain and seventy-seven other men, de Monts established a settlement in 1604 on an island he baptized Ile Sainte-Croix. The site is now an international historic park.

But the land that the explorers judged "a paradise" during the summer turned unforgiving as a harsh winter descended on the new arrivals. By the spring of 1605 half the company had died. Had it not been for the assistance of natives encamped nearby, more men might have perished.

Champlain gravitated across the Bale Francaise (Bay of Fundy) to a more favorable location Oil the shores of the Annapolis Basin. Port Royal, the outpost he set up the following year, earned a more jaunty reputation, with the settlement tge site of the new world's first social club, "L'Ordre de Bon Temps" (the order of good times). The settlers passed the long winter, often in the company of Mi'kmaq natives, with high-spirited dinners enlivened by wine, song, and North America's first theatrical play.

But the first successful French settlement was short-lived as Acadia, situated between the competing colonies of Quebec and New England, found itself caught up in an epic struggle for control of North America. Port Royal was abandoned, then reestablished, only to be attacked by a British contingent from the new colony in Virginia. In 1632 France once again claimed Port Royal, and among the three hundred settlers who arrived that year are the ancestors of many of today's Acadians.

The industrious Acadians constructed dikes throughout the marshlands to reclaim farmland, meanwhile enjoying friendly relations with the Mi'kmaq. Finally, by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), the British acquired Acadie, henceforth to be known as Nova Scotia. France then turned its attention to Quebec and the lucrative for trade.

For a time the Acadians continued to farm and fish as before; by 1755, as many as eighteen thousand Acadians flourished in the fertile valley. Meanwhile, increasingly insistent representatives of His Majesty the King demanded that his new subjects swear allegiance to their British sovereign. The Acadians offered instead an oath of neutrality. As war loomed, a final decree was issued. A few Acadians, anticipating the worst, escaped to New Brunswick, Ile St. Jean (Prince Edward Island), and Quebec.

On September 5, 1755, the men of Grand Pre were summoned to the parish church. After more than a century of peaceful habitation, the proclamation issued to them sent shock waves through the congregation: the Acadians were to be deported.

In what has come to be known as "Le Grande Derangement," variously translated as the great upheaval, or great disturbance--and without a doubt the defining event in their history--the Acadians were uprooted and scattered in a diaspora that touched both sides of the Atlantic. Last-minute appeals to no avail, families were separated, homesteads torched, livestock confiscated, destinations assigned at random.

More than seven thousand settlers found themselves crowded onto cargo ships in the fall of 1755, to be followed by thousands of others in the ensuing four years. Charles Lawrence, lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, wrote, "to prevent as much as possible their attempting to return and molest the settlers that may be set down on their lands, it would be most proper to send them to be distributed amongst the several colonies on the continent."

Accordingly, the "French neutrals" embarked for the colonies that would soon become American states. Many succumbed to shipwrecks and onboard epidemics. In Virginia the Acadians were refused admittance and sent to England. In Connecticut and South Carolina they were further divided, assimilating into the larger English-speaking population as intended.

Secondary migrations brought as many as three thousand Acadians to the bayous of Louisiana, in those years ruled alternately by France and Spain, where they developed a robust Cajun culture. Others straggled into Maine, or the Caribbean, while a few journeyed as far as "Les Malouines" (Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands) before joining other exiles in France. Some Acadians took refuge in the islands of St.-Pierre-et-Miquelon, France's sole remaining North American possession at the end of the Seven Years' War. Just as envisaged, English-speaking colonists were recruited to farm the land reclaimed from the sea by the Acadians, with thousands of Loyalists arriving in the years after the American Revolution.

Eighty years later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would draw on the tragic history of the Acadians to write Iris romantic poem, "Evangeline." In it, the young lovers Evangeline and Gabriel are separated during the deportations. Evangeline, who embodies the wanderings of the Acadian exiles, searches for Gabriel throughout the colonies, finally finding him on his deathbed in Philadelphia.

The incessant migrations of the late eighteenth century, probably brought the first Acadians to Newfoundland's west coast, to be joined by later arrivals from Cape Breton. It's here on the Port-au-Port Peninsula, in towns designated on the map as Cap St.-Georges, Mainland, and Black Duck Brook, that the story of the Acadians intersects with the chronicle of French heritage in Newfoundland.

The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht that delivered l'Acadie to the British also transferred Newfoundland from France to England. The French, however, retained fishing rights, so that French fishing crews would arrive in the spring and dry their cod on pebble beaches or on wooden stages built on the shores. In the fall, since they were prohibited from erecting permanent structures, they sailed for France.

Until 1783 the "French Shore" wrapped around the north coast and the Great Northern Peninsula (le Petit Nord), from Bonavista as far as Point Riche near Port-au-Choix. But as disputes between settlers and fishermen escalated, a 1783 edict shifted the French Shore counterclockwise, to extend along the length of the west coast.

Inevitably, given the miserable working conditions, some of the sailors jumped ship. "At the end of the season, they would hide on shore until the ship sailed off without them," says Stella Mailmans. Francoise Enguehard's research in Bretagne had turned up an old "Register of Deserters." The record cites one Celestin Guenneuc, who risked a six-month jail sentence for deserting his ship. Guenneuc is known to have remained on St. John Island as caretaker of a lobster factory. Most former French seamen, though, moved away, took Irish Catholic wives, and faded into the general population. "They settled here illegally," says Robert Cormier. "They cut themselves off from all contact with France."

At the Port-au-Choix National Historic Site, near the Viking settlement at l'Anse aux Meadows, Mailmans usually interprets ancient indigenous cultures to visitors. But last summer she organized a project based on more recent history: the French Deserters Festival. "People wondered why we would honor deserters," says Mailmans. "But they're part of our history." Mailmans took it upon herself to spruce up the old cemetery on St. John Island. Then she transported costumed participants by boat to join in an ecumenical service in remembrance of the French deserters.

In 1904, the era of the French deserters came to an end. France signed an "Entente cordiale" with England, giving up its fights to fish on Newfoundland's shores. "The people who were the most disappointed were the fishermen from St.-Pierre-et-Miquelon," says Cormier. "Before that, they had the fight to come here and fish. So for them, economically it was a real disaster." Overfishing eventually plunged the whole area of the Grand Banks into economic disaster. In 1992 the Canadian government declared a moratorium on fishing the once-plentiful cod.

In the Port-au-Port Peninsula, marriages between French fishermen and Acadian women were common. Largely isolated from the rest of the island's population, the families were left alone to fish and farm and carry on their francophone traditions.

Starting in the late 1800s, perhaps prodded by Longfellow's poem, descendants of the Acadians took steps to preserve their unique culture. In the Maritime Provinces, the destination of many of the original exiles, Acadians organized a series of conventions in which they adopted a flag, a hymn, and their own national holiday, August 15.

In 1994, the meetings blossomed into an international event: the first Acadian World Congress in New Brunswick, with a second in Louisiana in 1999. A year ago the governor general of Canada, representing the British Crown, issued an acknowledgment (but not an apology) for the "Great Upheaval." it was a fitting prelude to Nova Scotia's third Congres Mondial Acadien, which drew thousands of participants to a grand two-week reunion.

A pilgrimage of cars and motor homes rolled through Canadian provinces and U.S. states to converge in Nova Scotia. Attendees from around the world participated in commemorative masses, musical performances, and the joyous racket known as Tintamarre--a raucous parade echoing with car horns, bells, drams, whistles, and noisemakers. Tall slips sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Saint John, New Brunswick, a Loyalist city in a bilingual province whose "Acadian Trail" winds through proudly Acadian communities. Nearly ten thousand people attended the August 15 ceremonies at Grand Pre, where a statue of the fictional Evangeline stands vigil near the scene of the original expulsions.

By the time Newfoundland joined the rest of Canada, French language and culture on the rugged island appeared destined for oblivion. Schools, conducted on a haphazard schedule, provided instruction in English. Following the first bishops from Quebec, Irish Catholic clerics tended their French-speaking flocks in English. Unfamiliar French names were anglicized or even translated to English. Diane White, whose own family name was LeBlanc, ticks off examples: LeJeune became Young; Benoit, Bennett; Roi, King. "They were our names," she says. "They shouldn't have clone that."

Radio, and later television, brought English into the home. Then, during World War II, the construction of a U.S. Air Force Base in nearby Stephenville struck the coup de grace, providing economic incentives to forsake French for English. "A whole generation lost the language," says Cormier. "Our language was looked down on. How do you convince someone you should be proud of a language you're not allowed to speak?"

In the early 1970s, a study predicted that the use of French would die out within twenty-five years. "That just motivated us all the more," says Cormier, who spearheaded Les Terre-Neuviens Francais, the first group dedicated to reversing the decline. Their David-and-Goliath struggles have paid off. Parents in the Port-au-Port Peninsula can now send their children to French schools; the news in French is available on radio and television, as well as through a local newspaper; community centers at Cap St.-Georges, La Grand' Terre, and l'Anse-aux-Canards nurture traditional music and customs like "La Chandeleur," or Candlemass.

"It hasn't been easy," says Cormier. "It's not like Quebec, where French speakers are a majority in their own province. Acadians have a whole different situation. We're a small, tiny population completely surrounded by tiffs massive dominant culture." Still, there's reason for optimism. Parents who themselves lost their language now want their children to learn French. Diane White, who teaches pre school in French, says her son, now bilingual, is considering changing his name back to LeBlanc.

At this time of year adults and young people are coming together to savor the achievements of Newfoundland's multi-anniversary year and look forward to 2005. The new year promises more tributes to resilient ancestors as Canada commemorates both the 250th anniversary of the Acadian deportations and the 400th anniversary of the second, more successful, French settlement at Port Royal.

It's no accident that the francophone communities of the Port-an-Port Peninsula were chosen as the setting for "Passing the Torch" to the youth of Newfoundland. "Placentia represents the past," says Francoise Enguehard. "Port-au-Port is our future."

Joyce Gregory Wyels is a travel writer based in California and a frequent contributor to Americas.
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Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1CNEW
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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