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Britain 'acknowledges' expulsion of Acadians

Britain 'acknowledges' expulsion of Acadians
By Marcus Warren in Grand Pre
(Filed: 06/12/2003)

The Queen is to atone for the past deeds of British redcoats in Canada in an unusual foray by the Crown into the fraught sphere of relations between the country's English and French-speakers. 

A royal proclamation, expected to be issued next week, will acknowledge - but not apologize for the expulsion of the Acadians from this bleak corner of Nova Scotia in the 18th century.

Painting of Acadians
'The Arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana', by Robert Dafford. The French speaking settlers, landed after being shipped out of Canada by the British

More than 11,000 of the French-speaking farmers and their families, now known as Cajuns, were rounded up and shipped abroad and their houses burned during the deportation, which began in 1755 and lasted eight years. They had refused to swear allegiance to the Crown.

For many Acadians the episode was an early example of "ethnic cleansing". Some Anglophones, however, regard the episode as just one brutal chapter in a series of brutal colonial wars.  English settlers, they say, might well have suffered the same fate if France had won the wars in North America.

Grand Pre, the Acadians' main settlement and now the site of a memorial to their fate, was blanketed in snow yesterday. But before they were scattered across the globe, many of them regarded the place as paradise on earth.

Many ended up in the steamy bayous of Louisiana, where they were called Cajuns and became better known for spicy cuisine and dishes such as gumbo as well as the distinctive sound of their folk music.

Now the Queen has been prevailed upon to make symbolic restitution for the wrongs of the past by Canada's outgoing prime minister, Jean Chretien, who steps down next week.

Her governor-general, Adrienne Clarkson, will sign the proclamation recognizing what the Acadians call le grand derangement on the monarch's behalf on Wednesday. On such sensitive matters, the Queen and her representatives in Canada have little choice but to heed the advice of her government.

The activists who petitioned her to recognize the events of two and a half centuries ago have pronounced themselves satisfied with the gesture.

However, their leader, Euclide Chiasson, would like the Queen to make further amends by visiting Grand Pre on her next trip to Canada in 2005. "It would be wonderful if she took a day or two to visit the site and read this proclamation," he said. "Imagine what this would mean for our people. There is no desire for vengeance. We don't want people to feel guilty."

However, the revisiting of the saga has provoked controversy in some quarters, with one columnist complaining that history was being rewritten to recast "a legitimate tragedy as a cheap little robbery".

"The Acadians of 1755 do not merit the stamp of victim-hood some of their descendants desire," Colby Cosh wrote in the National Post. The one good thing about acknowledging the events was that "it probably won't cost too much", he added

Ethnic Japanese, Chinese and Ukrainians have all protested at their past treatment by the Canadian authorities in recent years, and the Canadian establishment has readily expressed contrition for historic wrongs.

The sufferings of the Acadians, who number 300,000 in today's Canada, are slightly different in that blame for them can be put squarely on the British Crown. The mastermind of the whole operation was the then governor, the Englishman Charles Lawrence.

However, most of the troops who carried out his orders came from the colonies to the south - New England. While English-speaking civilians were not directly involved in the expulsions, they were their main beneficiaries, swiftly occupying the land and the dykes built by the Acadians.

The Acadians should "thank the good Lord that they weren't at the top of George II's hit list,"  joked Jim Meek in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

Canada's wider linguistic strains between the English-speaking majority and the Acadians' cousins in Quebec make the battle over their history that much more piquant.

Exhibiting a stoicism which has held them in good stead over the centuries, many Acadians seemed almost unmoved by the news of the proclamation. One, Susan Surette-Draper, said: "We didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the deportation when I was young. The Acadians are forward-looking people."

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