Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Acadians: In search of a homeland, by James Laxer

“With the conclusion of the Seven Year’s War, Acadians were accorded the right to return to Nova Scotia. This right, however, was subject to severe restrictions that made those who returned second-class subjects to the Crown, both legally and as a result of the dire circumstances to which they had been reduced. Acadians were forbidden to resettle on the lands from which they had been deported. The colonial regime in Halifax was determined to reserve the best lands in Nova Scotia, including the fertile farming regions along the Bay of Fundy coast, for immigrants from New England. Not only were Acadians forbidden to occupy lands their families and communities had wrested from the sea over the previous century and more, they were limited to settling in small groups in separate locations. Colonial authorities did not want Acadians to reconstitute themselves in large enough numbers that they could assert themselves as a people. In addition, until June 1768, a Nova Scotia government regulation formally stipulated that grants of blocks of land in the colony would be made only to persons who undertook to settle the land with Protestant inhabitants. To relax, if not abolish, this regulation, British authorities announced that in the colonies, unlike Britain itself, Catholics could own and inherit land. This stance opened the door to the return of Acadians to Nova Scotia, even though the law that prohibited Catholics from owning or inheriting land was not repealed until 1783.

…Those who returned were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown. The plan of the authorities was to keep the Acadians on the margins of society throughout the Maritimes, in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island and in New Brunswick, once it was established as a separate colony in 1784. Immigration of English-speaking settlers was key to marginalizing the Acadians. By 1763, twelve thousand migrants from New England had settled in Nova Scotia.

There is a tragic irony in the fact that some Acadians were hired by the new settlers to assist them in restoring the aboiteaux that had been essential to the success of Acadian farming in the days before the deportation. The wanton destruction of Acadian communities had not only involved the burning of houses and churches, it had resulted in the wrecking of much of the system of water management on the marshy soil that had been reclaimed from the sea. To make the aboiteaux operational again, the New England settlers, who were not schooled in the form of agriculture, soon realized that they needed advice and assistance from former Acadian farmers.

Acadians returning to Nova Scotia sought new land to occupy. By the end of the eighteenth century there were about four thousand Acadians living in Nova Scotia. The largest number of these settled on the Bay of Fundy coast, west of the territory of old Acadie, in the area that lies between Digby and Yarmouth, at the tip of the peninsula. Although the new land was picturesque, affording spectacular views of the sea, its scrubby soil and rocky outcroppings forced the Acadians to turn to the sea for their livelihood. Just as the original Acadians, many of whom had been townspeople, had mastered the art of transforming marshy soil into rich farmland, the resettled farmers had to learn to become fisherman. For over two centuries, since their settlement in this part of Nova Scotia, Acadian fishermen have sailed out of their tiny ports in search of scallops, lobster, shrimps and codfish.

The decision of the British Board of Trade in 1764 to permit some Acadians to resettle in Nova Scotia was prodded along by a Huguenot fish merchant who hailed from the English Channel island of Jersey. Jacques Robin, who was setting up long-term fishing posts on Cape Breton Island and on the Baie des Chaleurs, regarded the Acadians as especially useful because of their vast experience in the territory, and also because their close relationship with the Mi’kmaq could add a fur-trading component to his commercial ventures. A letter from the Colonial Office to Governor Wilmot in Halifax showed that, while the imperial authorities did not object to the return of Acadians to work in the fishery, London continued to continued to regard the Acadians as a threat to the tranquility of Nova Scotia.’…[W]e see no objection to their [Acadians] being accommodated with small lots of land amongst the other settlers,’ the letter stated,’provided they take the Oath of Allegiance and that great care is taken to disperse them in small numbers that it may not lie in their power to disturb and annoy that Government, which was in its first establishment obstructed and brought into so great danger by their rebellious and turbulent disposition.”

A clear theme and identity can be found in the way a continued effort was made in past times from the Acadian community to stay in the land known as Acadie. If there was a way to remain the Acadians found this way. Clearly the land and the ocean were means to sustaining their community. In this same pattern one can see how a continued presence through their labour would allow for the Acadian community to stay connected with this special place.

Built on the shores of the thriving harbour in the late 19th and early 20th century were the results of a process that was occurring around the globe. Industrialization came to rest on the shores of caribou and the results were the appearance of what became known as lobster factories. One that seems to have latched onto a most successful and productive scheme for its era was that of Maritime Packers Lobster Factory. The site of what would come to be known as the world’s largest live lobster factory. The fact that it is the largest is a difficult proposition to uphold, yet it is known that it was to become the largest shipper of live lobster in North America. Developing its system with a complex network of trucking and schooner transports, the factory became the hub of activity for the shipments of lobster and other fish products North and South of the border. Interestingly there are many memories of the “French speaking ladies” in the local community that would come up every summer to work in the factory “kitchens” to shell the lobsters that were being prepared for canning. Developing from the strategy used in local fisherman’s homes that once were based on subsistence fishing, the new “factory” would mimic a maritime kitchen and allow for many groups of likely Acadian descendants to come from Montreal (in Maritime Packers case) each summer to prepare the fishermen’s harvest from the surrounding oceans up as far as Newfoundland and Labrador fishing areas, and can those destined for areas all over Europe and North America. The success of this particular idea was attributed to Samuel Brody a local businessman of the area with good sense to capitalize on the growing popularity of lobster. Another local lore states however that the success of the factory which grew rapidly during the early twenties when a ban on alcohol was enforced in the States and not in Newfoundland, was the idea that the whole business was a front for smuggling booze across to the states where the North/South border was still very weak especially in the Maritime provinces.

Whatever the reason the success of this particular factory has attributed to the very character of the harbour and has led to an additional layer of memory to this place that has become a strangely significant crossroads between the ocean and the mainland."

(Quote from: p.113-116, Laxer, James. 2006. Acadians : In search of a homeland. [Toronto]: Doubleday Canada)

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