Although most of the francophones from the Atlantic coast of Canada are called Acadian, this term conveys a variety of meanings.
Contemporary Acadia is best known through the voices and images of its artists and festivals, although an entire francophone population living in the Atlantic Canada region identifies itself with this historic and cultural "country" and is striving to transform it into a modern society.
Although most of the francophones from the Atlantic coast of Canada are called Acadian, this term conveys a variety of meanings. For many, Acadia is above all a land of historical and even mythical significance, one whose tragic past is fondly recalled during the celebrations that take place on various festive occasions such as August 15, which is considered a national holiday. There is also the Acadia of the diaspora, the descendants of the people who were dispersed over the North American continent and in Europe around the symbolic date of 1755. This diaspora is inspired by Acadian folklore and meets during the World Acadian Congress, of which the most recent took place in Nova Scotia in 2014.
Maritime Acadia, which is more of an articulated society, is made up of an archipelago of francophone communities scattered throughout several regions of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. For the last 40 years, it is in this last province that the Acadian population has maintained its greatest vitality, both demographically and on an institutional level. This has led it to view itself as modern Acadia.
Based on 2006 census data, there are 96 145 Acadians in Canada with the majority living in the Maritimes. The majority of Acadians live in Québec (32 950), however, proportionally, New Brunswick is home to the largest Acadian population (25 400). This situation has a major impact on the political power of the communities at the provincial level and offers, in part, an explanation for the success of the New Brunswick Acadians in claiming their rights.
The demographic and linguistic vitality of New Brunswick's Acadia, compared to that of the other two provinces, can be illustrated by two indicators: population growth and the linguistic continuity index. From 1961 to 2001, the francophone population increased by 12.4% in New Brunswick and decreased by 14% in Nova Scotia and 28.8% in Prince Edward Island. Interprovincial migratory trends have had a negative effect on the growth of the francophone population in this region of the country. For example, in New Brunswick from 1996 to 2001, nearly 10 200 francophones left the province, whereas only 7,200 immigrated to it.
The index of linguistic continuity is the ratio of the number of people who use French as their everyday language to the population whose first language is French. It takes into account transfers from and to all other languages. Subtracting this index from 100 yields the rate of assimilation. In 2001, the index of linguistic continuity was in the area of 92% in New Brunswick, while it stood at 58.2% in Nova Scotia and 49.8% in Prince Edward Island. These findings demonstrate the urgency of the situation in the latter two provinces and the magnitude of the challenge facing these communities.
There is a clear relationship between the regional social cohesion of communities and the rate of assimilation. For example, in a strong francophone region like Madawaska in New Brunswick, where almost 95% of the population speaks French as its first language, the assimilation rate is less than 1%, and sometimes even negative because the number of people who speak English at home (635) is fewer than the number whose mother tongue is English (1575). Conversely, in a region in which francophones are a minority, such as Prince County in Prince Edward Island, where only 9% of the population are native French-speakers, the assimilation rate is 68%.
Society and Identity
In spite of their minority status and no doubt because of this precarious situation, the Acadian people have created institutions that give shape to what could be called Acadian society. Relying on these structures, Acadia has developed values, symbols and cultural practices that cement its existence and guide its future course.
The best guarantee of maintaining this collective Acadian vitality resides in the tightly woven institutional network that has been created over the years. At the level of the Atlantic region as a whole and in each of the provinces, Acadians have access to community structures that claim to represent the interests of francophones to government bodies in Canada and abroad (France, Belgium and la Francophonie). The fight for equal rights for the francophone and anglophone communities is their common cause, and their actions are geared not only to procuring French-language services but also to the formal recognition of their uniqueness.
The 20th century has also seen the rise of Acadian institutions of considerable importance in areas related to youth, women and education. Without a doubt, it is in the field of education that these structures have played the greatest role. Almost all the Acadian population has access to francophone school systems. In New Brunswick, thanks to the public policy reforms undertaken by the government of Louis B. Robichaud in the 1960s, official bilingualism guarantees a dual administrative structure for both linguistic communities within the Department of Education. At the postsecondary level, francophones can choose from among Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia, Université de Moncton in New Brunswick, and a network of community colleges, in addition to distance education services.
This institutional vitality has grown considerably since the 1980s with the proliferation of interest groups based on Acadian distinctiveness. Artists, artisans, journalists, jurists, entrepreneurs, parents of schoolchildren, senior citizens, athletes, farmers, health professionals and others have formed themselves into lobby groups and developed a network of associations. Federal policies that support official language minorities and more limited provincial support have favoured the development of this Acadian organizational capacity.
The media occupy a strategic position in the development of Acadian minorities. The whole of Maritime Acadia is linked by Radio-Canada radio and television, but only New Brunswick has a daily newspaper, L'Acadie Nouvelle, along with several weekly newspapers, such as Le Petit moniteur, L'Étoile, Le Madawaska and La République. Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have two francophone weeklies: La Voix acadienne and Le Courrier de la Nouvelle-Écosse. In addition to the private media, community radio stations play an important role in rallying Acadian communities and heightening their sense of belonging. Finally, as in other parts of Canada, the Internet is an increasingly large part of the Acadian public space.
Acadia continues to rely on more traditional institutions such as the Co-operative movement, which brings together a large number of francophones, as well as the Catholic Church, which still has a certain amount of influence. New or old, these institutions find their reason for being in the Acadian culture and contribute to what has come to be called Acadian distinctiveness.
The collective Acadian identity is in a state of constant renewal, although its foundations are essentially historical. The French language is both its main vehicle and its core concern. The attachment to France remains strong, and participation in the worldwide francophone organization (la Francophonie) was made official in 1977, with the Acadians being represented by the government of New Brunswick. All things considered, Acadians must deal with two alter egos: the anglophone with whom there has been more conflict than co-operation in the past, and the Québecer, once a historic partner in the Canadian adventure, who is now often blamed for the fact that the francophone community outside Quebec must struggle to ensure its continuing existence.
The memory of the deportation, that tragic event in Acadian history, continues to form the Acadian identity. The symbolic character Evangeline, drawn from the poem by Henry Longfellow, still pervades the collective psyche. An attraction to the past is revealed in the keen interest in genealogical research and is also reflected in the creation of an identity that forms the basis of contemporary cultural and artistic expression. Works of art do indeed repeatedly refer to the French roots and the historical drama that have shaped the Acadian identity, all the while maintaining their connection to the geography and mentality of modern North American culture.
Beyond this collective sense of belonging, it must be stressed that, as befits their modern lifestyle, individual Acadians take on multiple identities. Politically, they affirm that they belong to their community, their province, Canada, the French-speaking population, or even the bilingual contingent. The traditional figures of the farmer and fisherman are still present but have been overshadowed by a whole range of socio-professional roles. There are also Acadians who adhere to different religious denominations and some who claim English as their main language. In short, the Acadian lives in a cultural country and is building a social and economic country while dealing comfortably with every aspect of North American modernity.
Based on total income per capita as an indicator of the relative level of development of the Acadian communities, their situation has been improving compared to the national average since 1961. In New Brunswick, for example, the gap has closed by some 17.6%. There are several reasons for this phenomenon. One important factor is the increase in the level of education among Acadians. For example, in 1961, only 3% of the Acadian population in New Brunswick aged 15 years or older had attended postsecondary school, compared with 42.4% in 2001. Increased participation in the work force is another important factor. The entrepreneurial dynamism of the new economic elite should also be noted. While cooperative entrepreneurship traditionally served as the chief mechanism for taking charge of certain economic activities, the individualism associated with urbanization and the march toward modernity has given new entrepreneurs more of an orientation toward capitalistic private enterprise. This entrepreneurial spirit has led to the development of a network of economic organizations (the Conseil économique du Nouveau-Brunswick, chambers of commerce, etc). These organizations not only act as lobbyists but also take part in the preparation of development policies and the management of government programs such as the Réseau de développement économique et d'employabilité (RDÉE).
The rise of the welfare state has played a major role in this recovery in several ways. There has been a considerable transfer of revenue to individuals. In 2001, among Acadians living in the Maritimes, transfer revenue represented 20% of total income compared to 16% for anglophones. These additional revenues bring about an injection of capital into the regional economy that supports development, particularly in the personal services sector. The development of public services has made it possible to create a significant number of well-paid jobs in all areas, thus broadening the economic base of the regional communities. By setting up various regional development programs, the federal and provincial governments have also encouraged the development of local entrepreneurship and, consequently, job creation.
However, this progress has been shadowed by another phenomenon, the persistence of a sizeable development gap. For example, the total per capita income of Acadians in New Brunswick remained 20.6% below the national average in 2001. The difference can be explained, in part, by a rate of economic activity lower than the Canadian average and a higher unemployment rate. The manufacturing sector remains focused on the processing of natural resources and has very little involvement in the high-technology sectors. For this reason, employment in many regions is very seasonal.
Employment is still the main concern in Acadia. It is for this reason that in recent years there has been strong opposition from Acadian communities to changes in certain federal and provincial government programs. At the federal level, a prime example is unemployment insurance, renamed employment insurance in 1996 following a tightening of eligibility criteria and a reduction in the amount and duration of benefits. Major protests were held in regions in which economic activity is closely linked to fishing, and this issue is still of great concern.
People who work in seasonal industries depend on employment insurance during the off-season. In January 2005, the unemployment rate stood at 15.5% in Nova Scotia's Cape Breton and 16.1% in northeastern New Brunswick, compared with a national average of 7%. The employment-population ratios in these two areas were 41.1% and 45.6% respectively, compared with 62.7% for the country as a whole. These figures allow us to better understand the reaction of Acadian workers toward reforms to government programs. Despite this situation, the population does not welcome any and all new jobs. The construction of an incinerator for contaminated soils in northern New Brunswick aroused widespread opposition.
Access to services throughout the area is a major challenge. In New Brunswick, for example, the debate has crystallized around healthcare delivery. Rationalization leads to greater institutional specialization and more centralized services, resulting in fewer jobs for healthcare workers and exacerbating the differences between rural and urban areas. As labour market data show, efforts to diversify the economic base have produced disappointing results in several regions.
Jean Daigle, ed, L'Acadie des Maritimes. Études thématiques, des débuts à nos jours (1993); André Magord, ed, L'Acadie plurielle. Dynamiques identitaires collectives et développement au sein des réalités acadiennes. (2003); Yvon J. Thériault, ed, Francophonies minoritaires au Canada : l'état des lieux (1999).