The fascinating true story of how fictional Evangéline enchanted the world
Grand Pré's iconic Evangéline statue is turning 100 this summer. Has the world caught up to her vision yet?
Around the world, statues are being toppled as people accuse the men they represent of attacking ethnic minorities, women and the powerless.
But in the forest primeval of Grand Pré, Nova Scotia, a different statue stands still among the murmuring willows. While the effigies of the men seem to demand that you pay attention to them, this wispy young woman turns her head away.
It is Evangéline, our Acadian queen, her voice sad and prophetic, telling the tale of her people, and of the Grand Dérangement of 1755.
Behind the simple image of Evangéline lies a fascinating story of imperial brutality, a blockbuster poem, one of the first theme parks in North America and, deeper still, the enchanting tale of how she came to represent Acadie to the real-life Acadians who returned.
A brutal expulsion
We'll start with the brutal reality. Anne Marie Lane Jonah, a Parks Canada historian, says before the expulsion, Grand Pré was a thriving farming community in Acadie and Mi'kma'ki. Many families intermarried and the two peoples lived mostly in peace.
But Port Royal fell to the British in 1710 and became Annapolis Royal. Britain plotted ways to take over all of what they called Nova Scotia. "People had found a way to keep living in British territory, keep being Acadian," she says.
Two generations after the fall of Port Royal, the British under Edward Cornwallis and Charles Lawrence forced the rural peasants to swear an oath of loyalty to the British Crown — and to vow to take up arms against France and Mi'kma'ki, if commanded.
"It was a very tense, complex period. Many people tried to negotiate some sort of solution," Johan says. After Fort Beauséjour fell to the British in 1755, the British attacked Acadie directly.
"Governor Lawrence decided all the Acadian population — civilians, families, every single Acadian — would be deported in the summer of 1755 and into the fall," Jonah says.
"What had been a prosperous community of thousands of people was emptied out in a matter of months and all of the buildings were destroyed and all of the animals were slaughtered."
Many died on the long exile, wandering through North America as France and Britain fought the Seven Years' War. Some ended up in Haiti, Louisiana (as the Cajuns), or back in France. And some made it home to Acadie.
"It's tragic, but at the same time it's fascinating and inspiring, the way that the Acadians maintained that identity through that trauma," the Parks Canada historian says.
And then, the first great twist.
A blockbuster poem for Americans
Nearly a century after the Grand Dérangement, an English-speaking American poet named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow held a dinner party in New England. One guest, Rev. Horace Connolly, told a tale of Acadie: a young couple, separated on their wedding day by the expulsion, and how the woman wandered forever after in search of her beloved.
Connolly was actually pitching the story to another guest — Nathaniel Hawthorne — and hoped he'd turn it into a novel. He didn't. But Longfellow promised to make it into a poem. He never visited Nova Scotia, but relied on his research at the Harvard University library and the Massachusetts Historical Society.
He published it in 1847. It was a smash hit, going through six reprints in six months and getting translated into a dozen languages. The first French translation was published in 1856 and the first French-Canadian in 1865.
It became required reading in many American schools, stirring a desire to see Longfellow's "thatch-roofed village." They travelled to Nova Scotia, only to discover Acadie had been burned to the ground a century earlier.
"Because it was a blockbuster hit when it was published, it brought back a new pride in Acadians for their history. It brought the story to many people who hadn't known it and it brought it in a way that inspired caring and sympathy for the Acadians. It wasn't an empire story. It was about the people," Jonah says.
An early theme park
Ian McKay is director for the Wilson Institute of Canadian History at McMaster University and co-author of In the Province of History, a book that examines the history of tourism in Nova Scotia.
"(The poem) was immensely attractive to people in Boston, who were undergoing an industrial revolution. They were presented with a picture of a society that was almost exactly the opposite of the one they were living in. Right from the get-go, there's an element of fantasy in this: somewhere north of New England, there is this blissful 'home of the happy.'"
Faced with this influx of Americans wanting to see Acadie, some English-speaking Nova Scotians saw a chance to create a tourism industry in the province. In the late 1800s, it was still a new thing to visit another country just to learn about someone else's history, however fancifully it might be presented.
Grand Pré became one of the world's first theme parks, McKay says, a proto-Disney World set up to deliver a satisfying tourist experience.
"Lots of American tourists arrived hoping to see the Land of Evangéline. And Nova Scotians obliged," McKay says. "Some Americans really want to see where Evangéline walked the earth and forget that she's a fictional character."
In 1869, a new rail service connected Halifax to Annapolis Royal. One of the engines was called Gabriel and the other Evangéline. The trains stopped at the abandoned Grand Pré site.
In 1871, a steam ship and rail service connected New England to Nova Scotia. In 1909, a stone cross was erected to mark the old Acadian cemetery. In 1913, Evangéline, Canada's first feature film was shot in Nova Scotia.
The lands were beautified and on July 29, 1920, the Dominion Atlantic Railway unveiled the bronze Evangéline statue in a cow pasture. They forgot to invite any Acadians, and the ceremony was entirely in English. Victorian gardens were added. The replica church opened in 1922.
Pauline becomes Evangéline
The statue was started by Québécois sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert. He in fact created a statue of his daughter Pauline, which may explain part of its hold on people: the Evangéline of the statue is a real woman, one loved by the sculptor. He died in 1917 and his son, Henri, completed the work.
The statue was poured in Paris and shipped to Canada. Ironically, the statue was lost for a time, wandering the ocean, before the paperwork was sorted out and she landed back in Acadie.
McKay says the Land of Evangéline did big business for the province from the 1870s right up until the 1960s.
And while Americans left with a memorable holiday, Nova Scotians ended up living with Evangéline full time. She started to change how people thought about the expulsion.
For English-speaking Nova Scotians, Longfellow's "home of the happy," became a timeless place of peace and ancient ways. "None of these actually match up very well with the historical evidence, but an historian who brings that up has the sense of being a party-pooper," McKay says.
The real Acadians were caught between empires, struggling to trade, survive, and live another generation, half hoping for France to return to power, half fearing Britain would conquer the land. Some wanted to take up arms against Britain, while others were pacifists.
"This is not a simpler, better life, it's a complicated, difficult, stressful, treacherous, precarious life," McKay says. "It's not the home of the happy. It's the home of the complicated."
Evangéline returns to her people
And then the next twist: Quebecois and Acadians adopted the English creation as one of their own. McKay says Quebec nationalists started to see her as an early partisan of their cause for a homeland. Acadians started naming their children Evangéline and Gabriel and the couple took on a central role in folk celebrations.
English-speaking Nova Scotians were at first perplexed at how this vicious chapter of history had become a tourism cash cow. "On the other hand, it is kind of flattering to have your province called the home of the happy," McKay says.
This collision of imagery and meaning made a big impression on Francois Gaudet as he grew up Acadian in the Clare village of St. Bernard. He knew Evangéline first from the festivals, and as a much-revered person, not as the subject of a fictional poem.
"She was part of our mythology," he says. "There would be pageants, there would be Evangéline and Gabriel. They would wear a certain kind of costume so you could recognize them right away. For us, she never really had a face, but she had a lot of different faces."
Gaudet spoke Acadian French exclusively until he started at school, which was then just offered in English. It was only then that he could even read the poem. "If it wasn't for Longfellow, who wrote the poem, Acadians might not know their own story. Through this poem, we learned our story."
The blend of fact and fiction influenced his own work as a visual artist today. "When you mix the two together, really amazing and wonderful things start to happen."
He paints Evangéline on old vinyl records, spins them around like a DJ, stacks them together like a book, then restacks them. His Evangélines defy settled meaning. "They can be reinvented, recycled, in retelling the story."
He paints Evangéline on his shower curtains at home and decorates his walls with her images. One painted record calls her an Influencer, the social media jargon for people with sought-after opinions and creations.
"I think our Evangéline, our Acadian queen, was a really big influencer because everybody appropriated her, everybody took advantage of our Evangéline," Gaudet says. "One of the locomotives was called Evangéline, there's Evangéline chocolate, Evangéline pop, Evangéline funeral home, Evangéline middle school, Evangéline café. Everybody took little pieces of Evangéline."
In his work, "Revangéline" tells her own story, not in English or French, but in visual language. For Gaudet, she's a cornerstone of his Acadian identity, this strange character birthed in an English poem, who wandered from her creator and became her own self. Gaudet calls her the most important person who never lived.
"She invites me and us to dream again. She's a symbol of perseverance, a symbol of hope, and a symbol of love," he says. "She's still here. She came back in her mythic village of Grand Pré. And we're still here — a people that were supposed to disappear."