Acadian congress celebrates history across 3 borders
2014 World Acadian Congress is being held in New Brunswick, Quebec and Maine
In 2004, the people running the Fort Ingall Historic Site in Cabano, Qué., had a seemingly simple idea.
They would co-publish a pamphlet for tourists that would link Fort Ingall to two other sites with which it shares a common history: the Petit-Sault Blockhouse in Edmundston, N.B., and the Fort Kent Blockhouse in Fort Kent, Me.
All three forts were built between 1839 and 1842 during the so-called "Aroostook War," when militias gathered and tensions escalated between Great Britain and the United States over the precise location of the international boundary.
"They didn't know if the territory here was supposed to be part of Canada or the United States, so they decided to build a series of forts in this territory," says Samuel Moreau, the current director of the Fort Ingall site.
It was a novel and straightforward idea.
But it was frustrated by the very borders that were eventually established in this territory: the international Canada-U.S. boundary drawn down the St. John River in 1842, and the Québec-New Brunswick line finalized nine years later.
"It was difficult to put this pamphlet in the tourist offices," Moreau says as a light breeze comes across the sprawling Lac-Témiscouata and whispers through the wooden posts of the fort.
"It was very difficult because we were in two provinces and one state."
Three different jurisdictions, and three different tourism authorities, weren’t quite ready to think beyond their own respective turf. The present had defeated the distant past, a time when Madawaska County, New Brunswick, the St. John River Valley of Maine and the Lac-Témiscouata area of Québec constituted a single, integrated cultural community.
Today, a decade later, that common history is reasserting itself.
The fifth Congrès Mondial Acadien, or Acadian World Congress, which opens Aug. 8, will be unique among the congresses that have taken place every five years since 1994.
It is the first that will see events held in two countries — Canada and the United States — as well as in two provinces within Canada — New Brunswick and Québec.
The pitch from the local bid committee was compelling: holding the two-week Congress here, across international and provincial boundaries, would reconnect these three jurisdictions with the Acadian roots they share.
A community divided by border politics
All of the congresses have striven to pull the disparate Acadian communities back together, but the 2014 version faced unusual hurdles.
But there are also the both overlapping and divided ways that people here identify themselves: Acadian, Brayon, Franco-American, American, Québecois and Canadian.
"Sometimes I feel it's difficult for people outside the region to look at us and not say, 'People from Madawaska are strange,'" says Father Jacques Lapointe, a priest and historian who was born in Van Buren, Me., and raised in St-Léonard, N.B.
"We are strange, but it's a good strange. We're different. We're different because our history is different.
"I think it's difficult for Acadians in the peninsula, around southeast New Brunswick, in Shediac, in Moncton, to understand fully these brothers and sisters, Acadians in Madawaska. Because there's just something weird or strange."
At the heart of that weirdness is the international border.
The first francophones in what was then called the Madawaska Settlement, on the U.S. side of the St. John River across from present-day Edmundston, were Acadians.
They came here, where the Madawaska River flows into the St. John, in 1783, wanting to get away from the Loyalists who were streaming into what would soon be New Brunswick. By 1800, there were 400 settlers living on both sides of the river in a tightly-knit community.
"I'm always amazed to hear that the River St. John is a natural boundary between our two or three regions," says Adrien Bérubé, a geographer at the University of Moncton's Edmundston campus.
"It used to be not a boundary, but our Main Street. Our houses were built face to face across the river. In winter, we would cross on the ice, in the summer, with canoes."
Soon the hardscrabble but idyllic existence of the settlers fell victim to geopolitical rivalry: both Britain and the United States coveted the vast forests in the area, with large white pines perfect for building sailing ships.
The two nations disagreed on how to interpret the 1783 treaty meant to establish the border, with the U.S. claiming a line far north of here, along a range of hills not far from the St. Lawrence River, and Britain claiming a boundary to the south.
The dispute almost led to war — those three forts were built in case hostilities broke out — but in 1842, the two powers agreed to resolve the dispute through negotiation. The Webster-Ashburton treaty, signed in Washington, established a compromise border: the St. John River.
So armed conflict was avoided, but the agreement divided the Madawaska Settlement in two: the settlement at the mouth of the Madawaska River eventually became Edmundston, N.B., and Madawaska, Maine. Downriver, the river community of Grande-Rivière was split into Van Buren, Maine, and St-Léonard, N.B.
French losing ground in Maine
The Acadians and the so-called Brayons, settlers from Lower Canada who had migrated to the region a few years after the Acadians, were now living in something like an accidental social science laboratory: two virtually identical French-speaking communities living under different national and state laws.
While their grandparents spoke it at home and still do, most young descendants of the Acadian settlers in northern Aroostook County are not fluent in French.
Anna Faucher, who graduated this year from Madawaska High School on the Maine side of the border, is one of the few students from the class of 2014 who is at ease with the language.
"When we go to Canada sometimes, to Greco or Pizza Delight, [my friends] would like me to order for them in French, and I always tell them, 'No, you're able to.' They just don't have the confidence to speak French."
Greg Cyr, whose Canadian family lives on the U.S. side of the river, is another student in the minority who can speak French easily.
"I have a lot of friends who will come up to me for advice in French class, like, 'What's this word in French?' I'm often known as the French kid, the Canadian, the kid that everyone knows can speak French."
In fact, speaking French in Maine schools, even at recess, was outlawed in 1919, a reflection of nativist sentiment and the U.S. view of itself as a cultural melting pot. It’s one reason the language is less common today.
Elaine Cyr, a retired school teacher from St. Agatha, Me., recalls a system of punishment used when she went to school known as the "French ticket."
"If a teacher caught you or caught anybody in the class saying a French word, among your friends, overheard you, they would issue you a ticket [for] the whole class," she says.
"The most tickets issued to a class at the end of the week, those students would be punished. You would eat [lunch] last. And that was a big thing."
"Some people today, to this day, if they discover people have French accents, they're apt to look down on them, so if they can't notice if you have a French accent, it's a good thing if you can fool them," she says.
Some of Collin’s grandchildren have held onto their French, which has made a reappearance in schools in the area. The ban was lifted in the 1960s, and a French immersion program was even established in area schools in the 1990s.
While it eventually closed because of lack of funding, students are able to take some French classes, forestalling a more rapid decline.
"It’s sad," Collin says.
"There's a certain richness in being able to speak different languages. And if you lose it, you've lost it. That's it."
Borders within borders
Other boundaries persist in the region: settlers arrived from Lower Canada a few years after the Acadians. By then, the Madawaska Settlement was already prospering, and the new arrivals, poorer and less literate, were looked down on by the established Acadian families.
The Acadians adopted a nickname for the new arrivals, a label that persists to this day.
"'Brayon,' or 'haillon', means 'rag,'" Carrier says, offering one of several explanations for the origin of the word.
"And it's a well-used Acadian term. It's a rag. So some of these people were calling some of the others rags."
This created another division.
While the term "Acadian" has become the accepted shorthand term for all Franco-Americans in northern Maine, regardless of their actual ancestry, on the New Brunswick side, some francophones in the Edmundston area resent being lumped in with Acadians, insisting it’s not part of their identity and looking at the Congress with a jaded eye.
Priest and historian Jacques Lapointe says it’s another layer of complexity that Congress organizers have had to overcome.
"It was continuously one border after another," he says of the years since 1842.
"Not just political but very often cultural. I would say at times even economic."
A hardening border
The most recent complication is, of course, the new security measures imposed by the United States after 9/11 — measures that have made the 1842 boundary firmer and more difficult to cross.
"No one would have thought that we would have come to a day where people from Grande Rivière, from Van Buren and St-Léonard, would have to have a passport to cross over," says Jacques Lapointe.
"And that's a difficult reality."
I've spent all my life on the border and the villages either on one side of the river or the other were really home. So requiring passports for no real reason really pissed me off.- Yves Carrier
Even before the 2001 attacks, there was a divergence. The descendants of the Madawaska settlers in New Brunswick, Maine and Québec had remained connected over the years, travelling to each others’ communities to shop, attend school and get married.
"The border was more a suggestion than anything else," says Yves Carrier.
But in the second half of the 20th century, increased patriotism in the United States after the Second World War, the rise of Québec nationalism, and the Moncton-centred Acadian renaissance in New Brunswick led all three areas to focus inward and turn away from the old links.
Now that has been compounded by heightened border security, particularly the new passport requirement for land travellers brought in by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"I decided not to get one," says Carrier, who grew up in Edmundston.
"I've spent all my life on the border and the villages either on one side of the river or the other were really home. So requiring passports for no real reason really pissed me off.
"So I did like Don Quixote did. I didn't get a passport and I'm buying my gasoline and my milk on this side."
Cross-border crossings have dropped since the new measures, mainly because people on the Canadian side wanted to avoid delays and what they consider overzealous questioning and searches.
But few have outright refused to cross altogether as Carrier has.
"It's just a slight political stance," he says, "but I think if more people did like me, we would put more pressure on the border problem between Maine and New Brunswick, and we'd be treated differently."
Border security has been a preoccupation for Congress organizers as well. The opening ceremony takes place in Edmundston, while the main Aug. 15 festivities will be held in Madawaska, Me., and the closing ceremony in Témiscouata.
With events happening in New Brunswick, Québec and Maine, thousands of participants are expected to circulate between the three areas, criss-crossing the border several times.
Organizers say federal officials in both countries have promised extra staff and resources to process people crossing the border. One potential snag was eliminated when the construction schedule for the new Clair-Fort Kent bridge was accelerated, allowing it to open last week.
People attending events are being encouraged to use shuttle buses to reduce congestion on the Edmundston-Madawaska and Clair-Fort Kent bridges.
The watershed boundary
Another border that Congress organizers hope to erase, or at least dilute, is the one between New Brunswick and Québec.
And New Brunswick was caught in a contradiction.
It wanted an intercolonial boundary to the north, so that it would gain possession of Lac-Témiscouata and the area around it — a claim based on old proclamations designating the "highlands," a range of hills north of the lake, as the border between the two colonies.
But in its dispute with Maine, which had based its claim for territory north of the St. John River on the same wording in the same proclamations, New Brunswick had argued the hills north of the lake were not the highlands at all.
Officials in London eventually drew the line along the edge of the parish of Madawaska, giving Lac-Témiscouata to Lower Canada.
Even so, people in the communities along the lake, such as Cabano and Dégelis, treated those hills as a dividing line that cut them off from the rest of Québec. Many people in the area attended the Collége St-Louis in Edmundston and crossed to work in the woods of Maine.
Rock Belzile, a sculptor living in Témiscouata, says the geographic connection is important: the lake is part of the Madawaska River system, which empties into the St. John River.
"The water flows south, to the Bay of Fundy," he notes, so the New Brunswick connection is a logical one.
The river and the lake were also an important transit point. In colonial times, a primitive road ran through the territory, used by soldiers travelling from Fredericton to Upper Canada during the War of 1812. The need to preserve that strategic route, and avoid severing the connection, was another reason Britain wanted the border south of here.
"It's a link between what used to be two British colonies in Québec and Halifax. It still is today. It's where the rail is, CN. It's still very important." The Trans-Canada Highway now follows a route similar to the old colonial trail.
Samuel Moreau, the director of the Fort Ingall site, says there is yet another bond: 28 per cent of the Québecois living in the Témiscouata area have Acadian names, and even more — 90 per cent — have traces of Acadian ancestry.
But modernization loosened the connections here, too. Québec nationalism, and the increased role of the provincial government and Montreal-based radio and television in the 1960s, led to a stronger identification with the rest of the province rather than with nearby Madawaska neighbours.
Today, Moreau says, few people in the Témiscouata area consider themselves Acadians.
Borders are 'who we are as a people'
"We've been used to, all our lives, that situation," he says.
"So borders are not anything that is artificial. It's a reality. And we could have lived in trauma if we had wanted to, all these years, with all these changes … But I think we made it part of who were are. It's part of our mentality, part of our soul. It’s who we are as people."
Already, Acadian flags are more visible this summer than ever before in northern Maine, along Lac-Témiscouata, and in Madawaska County, N.B. Especially on the Maine side, many homes and businesses are adorned with yellow stars, echoing the Acadian flag.
"Aroostook is the end of the world for Maine and America," he says.
"Madawaska is the end of the world for the Maritimes and New Brunswick. Témiscouata is the end of the world for the St. Lawrence area. That's true. But that wasn't always so."
"It's the large powers, large empires that designed the boundary and made us the end of the world. And I think the Acadian World Congress is an opportunity to realize that we used to be a single unit, and maybe we can work in a way to overcome some of the difficulties this recent history has brought us."
And at Fort Ingall, where the brilliant blue waters of Lac-Témiscouata glisten in the sunlight as they flow south from Québec toward the international border between New Brunswick and Maine, Samuel Moreau is thinking about that elusive pamphlet — a guide to three forts in three jurisdictions with a single story to tell.
"So I think what the Congres Mondial will do [is it] will allow us to work together and it will open minds for the future," he says.
"Maybe we could redo this pamphlet in the future."
With files from Pierre Leblanc and Léo Thériault