Acadians in Nova Scotia
The recent furor over historical Canadians such as John A. MacDonald, Edward Cornwallis or Frank Oliver and their place in modern day Canada has brought forward the fact that we are woefully ignorant of our own history. Other than the hazy recollection of a CBC Vignette, the vast majority of us know very little Canadian history. Hence when a vocal minority seizes control of the narrative surrounding a particular character, the majority doesn’t immediately dismiss the hyperbole as they have no knowledge of the subject.
Towards the end of shedding some light on a piece of Canadian and Nova Scotia history, the focus of this article will be on the Municipality of Clare and the vibrant present day Acadian culture. Until I had spent some time visiting the region, I had no idea of the rich Acadian culture thriving in the southwest corner of the province. The entire Le Grand Dérangement episode was never a part of my school history lessons and it seems after checking with my kids, it still is not a part of high school studies. I consider it a sin that our own history receives such short shrift.
The History of Clare (La Baie Sainte Marie)
Starting in 1755, the Acadians were flung hither and yon from their homes in the Grand-Pré region of Nova Scotia. After close to a decade, under a kinder British governor, many of the exiles were allowed to return to British territory in 1764. Their former lands had already been ceded to New England Planters, so a new area of the Nova Scotian peninsula needed to be found for them. Legend has it that a surveyor from the Irish county of Clare, carved out a large chunk of land for the returning Acadians. This became the Municipality of Clare located in the County of Digby.
Families named Comeau, Deveau, LeBlanc, Robicheau, Belliveau and Melanson were typically given land for a homestead and a 100 acre woodlot. Unlike the fertile lands of the reclaimed Grand Pré delta or the Annapolis valley, it was tough to grow crops on the rocky, wooded, boggy land. Most of the Acadians turned to logging and fishing to survive.
Today, the main industries include agriculture, lobster fishing, other fisheries, ship building, mink farming, logging and tourism. Although all the larger sawmills are gone from the region, numerous hobby sawmills are busy making lumber from the family woodlots. Red Spruce, Yellow Birch, Hemlock, White Pine, Sugar Maple, and American Beech are common Acadian forest trees. Burning wood for heat is very common. Sawing logs into planks, boards and beams for various building projects is the usual destination for the larger felled trees. A couple of niche markets is to make maple wood slats for lobster traps or Hackmatack ‘knees’ for wooden ships.
The Acadians of Clare are fluently bilingual, had a rich Catholic religious background and have several unique foods and customs.
- The Acadian Churches along the Evangeline Trail
The small Acadian communities of loggers and fisherman managed to erect several magnificent churches that run the length of the Clare portion of the Evangeline Trail.
This is the first large church you come across after taking the Church Point turn-off from the main 101 Highway. The granite for the structure was brought from Shelburne, NS and the first mass was held after a 32 year construction period in September 1942.
After only two years of construction, 1500 volunteers finished building North America’s largest wooden church in 1905. Located next to it is the Acadian Université Sainte-Anne.
Further ‘down the line’, is another larger wooden church built and financed by the local inhabitants in 1880.
Again, this 1921 church was another example of the local Acadian craftsmen and parishioners coming together to build a place of worship.
Nova Scotia Acadians have many signature and staple dishes unique to their culture. Similar to the more esoteric dishes from other cultures, many of the traditional meals take some getting used to.
I wish I could say it was more appetizing than it looks but I will be charitable and say Rappie Pie is an acquired taste. The process of making the dish starts with finding an old fowl in the yard and boiling the meat to tenderize it. Meanwhile, you make ‘zombie’ potatoes (my characterization of the process) by mashing all of the liquid and starch out of them. They get re-energized by the chicken broth. Then in a large pan, you layer the chicken meat, some diced onions and the grey, goopy potato paste. Bake in the oven until there’s a crisp crust. It’s a time consuming dish to make especially the processing of the potatoes. This is why it is served for special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Check out the recipe here.
- Acadian Stew or Fricot
This dish is similar to a meat and dumplings stew. Again, if chicken was the meat in the stew, they would use an older bird. The dish looks and tastes more palatable than the Rappie pie. Check out the recipe here.
Quahogs are large clams that can be found in the intertidal regions on Clare’s shoreline. Many places in the Maritimes and states such as Maine will cut them into strips for deep frying similar to other clams. The Acadians prefer to eat them stuffed as pictured above.
Due to the nature of being so close to the ocean, Acadians frequently ate lobster, oysters, red mussels, dulse (a type of seaweed), herring, and haddock. Seafood and fish chowder are common meals.
Acadians in Clare hold festivals similar to other Acadians elsewhere in New Brunswick, PEI, Maine and Quebec. They also hold their own unique yearly events.
- The Tintamarre
This is a relatively new Acadian tradition that had its roots in New Brunswick when it was held in conjunction with important Acadian anniversaries. The traditional way of holding a Tintamarre was to start at one end of the village and make a lot of noise as you passed by the neighbors with everyone ending up at a central meeting place. In Clare, because of the long distances up and down the ‘Line’, people get in their vehicles and drive the highway from both ends of the municipality to end up at the Sainte-Anne University. It is held on Acadian Day, August 15, and in Clare is the culmination of a week-long Acadian Festival. Houses next to the road decorate their yards with flags and droves of people come out to wave at the honking line of traffic.
- The Spring Canoe Rallies
There is a strong connection between the inhabitants of Clare and canoeing. Several Canoe rallies take place in the spring. One traditional rally that had its start in the 70’s uses the Salmon River/Lake Doucette drainage area for participants to make their way right down to the ocean. The two day event is held every Easter long weekend and attracts scores of canoes. It also attracts numerous spectators and well-wishers who follow the boaters on their ‘four wheelers’. Certain popular haul-outs are good vantage points to watch the participants shoot some rapids and occasionally tip over in the frigid spring runoff. Check out YouTube video highlights of the 2010 Meteghan Easter Canoe trip courtesy of Lisa Sutt through this link.
- Acadian Music
The Acadians of Clare enjoy their music. Years ago, community centers held weekend dances for the locals to party. Numerous small home-grown bands entertained their neighbors. In recent years, several popular bands such as Radio Radio, Grand Dérangement, and Blou got their start in the area. Unfortunately, outside of the region, only Quebec fans may be familiar with their music as most of their songs are in French.
Canadians need to discover the fact that Nova Scotia is not just Halifax, Peggy’s Cove and lobster. Clare is a Canadian historical gem whose heart is a short three hour drive from Halifax. Next time you visit the Maritimes, it would be worth the time to visit.