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Acadian Culture

Culture is often defined by geographical boundaries, but Acadian culture defines Acadia because it isn't so much a place as it is an enduring French society. In New Brunswick it abides (although not exclusively) above an imaginary diagonal line drawn from Edmundston to Moncton. In the heartland you hear remnants of Norman-French (a dialect of old French), while around Moncton you're just as apt to hear a melodious Acadian dialect called Chiac, a tweedy kind of French with bits of English.

French settlers arrived in the early 1600s and brought with them an efficient system of dikes called aboiteaux that allowed them to farm the salt marshes around the head of the Bay of Fundy. In the 1700s they were joined by Jesuit missionaries who brought the music of Bach, Vivaldi, and Scarlatti, along with their zeal. In 1713 England took possession of the region, and authorities demanded that Acadians swear an oath to the English crown. Some did; others didn't. By 1755 it didn't seem to matter: only those who fled into the forests escaped Le Grand Dérangement—the Expulsion of the Acadians, mostly during the Seven Years' War—which dispersed them to Québec, the eastern seaboard, Louisiana (where they became known as Cajuns), France, and even as far as the Falkland Islands. It was a devastating event that probably should have eradicated French language and culture in the Maritimes, but it didn't. It did, however, profoundly affect Acadian expression—mobility remains a pervasive theme in the art, literature, and music of Acadian people.

Whether they were hiding deep in Maritime forests or living in exile, Acadians clung tenaciously to their language and traditions. Within 10 years of their deportation, they began to return, building new communities along coasts and waterways in the northeastern part of the province, remote from English settlement. In the 1850s Acadians began to think "nationally." By 1884 there was an Acadian national anthem and a flag, essentially the French tricolor with a bright yellow star on the blue section.

The Acadian national holiday, on August 15, provides an official reason to celebrate Acadian culture. Le Festival Acadien de Caraquet stretches the celebration out for the two preceding weeks, with music and cultural events. Caraquet is also home to Théâtre Populaire d'Acadie, which mounts original productions for French communities throughout the Maritimes and encourages contemporary Acadian playwrights. Books by Acadian authors, including internationally renowned Antonine Maillet, circulate in Québec, France, and Belgium. Conceptual artist Herménégilde Chiasson pushes the envelope with his poetry and painting, and Paulette Foulem Lanteigne's palette contains the bright colors that have traditionally defined the Acadian spirit.

The earliest Acadian settlers made pine furniture that was elegant in its simplicity. Modern Acadian artisans continue to make functional things, such as pottery and baskets, beautiful. Handmade wooden spoons are doubly beautiful—in pairs they keep time for the music at kitchen parties, where Acadian families have traditionally sung their history around the kitchen fire. But it isn't necessary to have a party to enjoy "music de cuisine."

Clearly, the love of music endures: it rings clear in churches; the cotillion and quadrille are danced at soirees; and Acadian sopranos and jazz artists enjoy international renown.

Updated: 2014-04-09

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