Affordable Travel Guide to Appreciating the Acadians of Nova Scotia

A Synergy of Spirit — Centuries of Sharing between Mi’kmaq and Acadians

Appreciating the Acadians of Nova Scotia

In his book, The Great War and Modern Memory, historian Paul Fussell writes, “The Somme [WWI battlefield] is now a peaceful, but sullen place… the saddest place in France.” The same can be said of the bucolic tract of land flanking the Minas Basin, near Grand Pré, Nova Scotia. A visit to this sad and mystical place will inspire and soothe, and it’s under an hour from Halifax. Understanding the history of this area will serve to help visitors better appreciate the heritage of a dramatic past.

Next to the French Cross marking the Acadian deportation, is a stark, dead tree, a symbolic adjunct. When one crosses the soft green sod to the black iron cross, there is a tangible weight that penetrates the heart, a palpable sorrow that invades even the most sunny day. And yet this lesser known attraction also harbors the strong spirit of a people who were driven out, but came back, in some cases centuries and many generations later, to one of the most beautiful, abundant places on earth. Many a tourist visiting this area returns to make residence, permanent or for summers.

Grand Pré (great meadow, in English) is about an hour’s drive from the beautiful, vibrant city of Halifax that lies on the Atlantic Ocean on the south shore of Nova Scotia, sometimes referred to as Canada’s best-kept secret. Grand Pré is situated at the eastern end of the world-famous (for its apples an other fresh produce, and lately, for its wines) Annapolis Valley, a wide valley that parallels the southern shore of the Bay of Fundy, with the highest and lowest tides in the world.

Serviced by Stanfield International Airport, Halifax is the largest and capital city in the province of Nova Scotia, but more pivotally to the tourist, it’s at the hub of everything and centrally located; a drive south to Yarmouth, the southwestern tip of the province takes about 3 hours; to the northern reaches, on Cape Breton Island, about the same. But Nova Scotia is more than breath-taking scenery at every turn, fresh lobster and other seafood, and the art and music of an eclectic population, it is the settling point (in 1604) of one of the earliest European settlements in North America, and the home of one of the most ancient indigenous tribes on the continent. It is a dream for the traveler interested in culture and history.

Having lived in Nova Scotia for 10,000 years before the French arrived as seasonal fishermen and neophyte settlers, the Mi’kmaq possessed innate knowledge of the land. Edible fruits, berries, nuts and fungi were known to them, as were methods of trapping, and construction of shelters capable of withstanding winter. The natives cultivated and preserved crops — beans, corn, squash and tobacco — understanding the essence of what thrived in the unique climate, using what we now call organic methods; they planted beans next to corn, encouraging vines to grow up stalks, and keeping the ground virtually free of weeds that could hamper corn growth.

Documented by Sally Ross and Alphonse Deveau in The Acadians of Nova Scotia, Past and Present, the indigenous peoples even named the newcomers, using a derivative of their own place names, like Shubenacadie: La Cadie; now l’Acadie.

The Mi’klmaq in the Port Royal area ensured that the settlers made it through their second winter in 1605; the first had proved fatal. Settling in 1604 on St. Croix Island, a location with insufficient firewood and limited wildlife, almost half of the all-male settlers died of scurvy or starvation. The rest braved forward, knowing that their friendship and trust with the natives was their insurance marker for life in the New World.

While the French brought firearms and Christianity to the Mi’kmaq, they also provided a natural supply of husbands for the native women; few French women joined the men in those early days. The first Acadian Catholic nun was the daughter of a Frenchman, Charles de la Tour, and a Mi’kmaq woman. André Lasnier, born in Cape Sable in 1620, is believed to be the first child born in Acadie; he, too, had mixed blood. According to Leland Surette, a spiritual leader, almost all present-day Acadians have native blood.

Inter-marriage was common; a racist element did not enter the equation. A balance ensued, one based in sharing skills and goods; the French/Acadians kept written records, whereas the natives’ method was largely verbal. As a result, we have recorded history of the Mi’kmaq.

Once French women arrived, they learned healing skills from their Mi’kmaq sisters. Plants and herbs with medicinal qualities were used to make poultices, tinctures and other curatives, and some, like making cough syrup from the bark of a young fir tree, are still made by tradition-leaning Acadian women.

Accomplished craftspeople, the Acadians learned from the Mi’kmaq such skills as rug-hooking, basket-weaving and making musical instruments. Mr. Surette, whose mixed-blood roots trace back to the 1700s in Tusket, takes an active part in Aboriginal Day celebrations, making baskets and fish (or eel) spears with his father. He also officiates at celebrations, carrying the sacred pipe, and performing sunrise and sunset rituals on important dates, the turning of the equinoxes and solstices.

Evidence of the inter-dependent relationship between the Acadians and the Mi’kmaq continues to be revealed, corroborated in the display at Grand Pré National Historical Site; a painting illustrates the peaceful exchange of goods. At a public-participation archaeological dig at the former Acadian village at Beaubassin, items as diverse as native beads, fishhooks and arrowheads lie in the same layers as shards of European pottery, buttons and clay pipe stems, suggesting co-habitation, or at least consummate cooperation. Even communication became blended, and stays thus, with both languages peppered with words and phrases from the other.

But a change was pending. “The deportation separated the natives and the Acadians,” says Mr. Surette. “The links were not as strong because the Mi’kmaq feared being deported with the Acadians; those of mixed blood living with the Acadians were deported.” And so a rift was driven into a tight-knit group. Over time, religious beliefs and lifestyles shifted apart, but circumstance formed a new glue: the strains of land loss thanks to political gain.

A former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Mr. Surette, sees the re-emergence of a spiritual bond; its re-emergence in the last 20 years comes after centuries of being forced underground.

With a history of mutual support and shared anguish, and despite fractionalization during deportation, the link between the Acadians and local First Nations peoples remains intact today, and is growing.

Bernice d’Entremont, program director at the Musée acadien et Centre de recherche in West Pubnico (originally called Pombomcoup), a museum, research centre and archives, says that the meeting of the two factions is obvious in the national Acadian celebrations held annually on the summer solstice, June 21st. “I cannot speak accurately of the Mi’kmaq because I am Acadian only, but the blended French and natives in this area, would be considered to be Métis,” says Ms. d’Enrement, emphasizing, “This is not the Métis as in Manitoba.” In fact, Métis has become a legal definition in order to establish societal and land rights, and has minimal bearing on Nova Scotians who consider themselves Métis.

During the annual celebration, Acadian and Nova Scotia Métis join hands for a series of ritual celebrations, often conducted by native elders, including spiritual prayers, the raising of a traditional tee-pee, a smudging with prayers to the four compass points (signifying a return to the earth of what has been taken from it), and culminating in a shared meal. The event also hosts sessions in basket-weaving, drumming and genealogy, in the case of the Acadians and Métis, that trail almost inevitably leads back to Philippe Mius d’Entremont, whose son, Meuse, married, over time, two native women.

Leland Surette puts it best: “What I try to bring back to the people is the native ceremonies that have been forgotten, to help them know how to live their lives with respect. Then you can return to any place that you have been.” This means respect for all things. Mr. Surette closes his rituals and celebrations with a poetic, all-encompassing Mi’kmaq phrase that means, simply, “all my relations”. It is spoken: Msit no’kmaq [ma-SIT no Gmah].

The deep importance of our connection with others lives on in Acadie, and may serve as a good example to other cultures, better aligned than divided. Tracing the footsteps of the Acadians across the lands of Grand Pré and to the location of the deportations draws our empathy and therefore our compassion for our fellow human beings. It’s a trip to give the soul peace.

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