The Acadian Renaissance


  1. Background and Context
    • Acadian History
    • Acadian Culture and Literature
  2. What to Expect in the Literature
  3. Featured Authors
  4. Further Reading
  5. How to Cite

Background and Context

No curriculum of New Brunswick literature would be complete without inclusion of the province’s French writers, many of whom have readerships that eclipse that of their English counterparts. Because this is a curriculum solely in English, however, inclusion of our Acadian writers must be of an introductory nature, and the presentation of their work must be in English translation. That said, failure to examine the Acadian literary voice in New Brunswick is to miss an essential aspect of the province’s cultural heritage.

Acadian History

The Acadian presence in the New World had its roots in the explorations of Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian mariner in service to the King of France. In 152425, he explored the North Atlantic coast, appending the name “Arcadia” to a wilderness area between Washington and New York. The name likely derived from Arcas the Hunter, son of Zeus in Greek mythology. Zeus hid Arcas in a dense woods for protection, the name Arcadia henceforth standing for dark or dense woods. The name stuck.

Ten years later, Jacques Cartier explored the northern regions of the vast territory that had become Arcadia, visiting New Brunswick’s Baie-des-Chaleurs in 1534. Partly chasing the abundant cod stocks off what is now Newfoundland – French citizens were forbidden to eat meat on days of Catholic observance – Cartier’s discoveries accelerated the establishment of coastal settlements where cod was salted and dried for later transport. Nicholas Denys, the region’s most successful cod merchant, became Governor of Acadia in 1654, and for the next 100 years the Maritimes was a predominantly French territory (New England south and New France north).

Most of the French settlers who arrived in the New World were laboring folk seeking to escape the political tensions that would culminate in the French Revolution (17891799). That revolution replaced feudal privilege with “inalienable rights,” but not before many innocents were killed or displaced. The first French colonists to arrive in the New World with any claim to settlement did so in 1604 under Pierre Dugua de Monts and Samuel de Champlain. They settled in Port-Royal after a disastrous first winter in New Brunswick that killed almost half their number. By 1650, the population of Acadians living around Port-Royal was 400 (45-50 families), many of whom came from an area of western France called Poitou. Large numbers of present-day Acadians can trace their lineage to one of those families.

These Acadian settlers were self-reliant farmers and traders. They drained the marshes around the Tantramar and practiced dyke farming, using aboiteaux, or long wooden boxes at the base of dykes, to desalinize coastal lands. They grew fruits and vegetables, had large orchards and vineyards, and built a prosperity that invited envy. Their so-called Golden Age lasted until roughly 1744. They considered themselves neutral (les Français neutres) in the English-French colonial wars but soon became pawns in a geopolitical drama that went far beyond their control.

First came the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which gave the French fishing colony in Newfoundland to the English with the rest of “Ancient Acadia.” However, since the English and French could not agree on the boundaries of territory, and the Treaty provided for the gradual departure of Acadians to other French holdings, the Acadians held fast in the places that they had turned to profitable farmland. The completion of Fortress Louisbourg in 1745 (the same year as its first siege) exacerbated the situation for Acadians. Built to defend the French fishing industry, the fort’s size and strategic location at the tip of Île Royale (Cape Breton) invited concern. Its community not only numbered over 3000 people, but it was one of the largest harbours north of Florida, berthing over 200 vessels each year.

Though not siding with the French in the colonial wars, the Acadians were impacted by the Treaty and the military threat that Louisbourg posed. To moot a perceived natural ally of the French, the English demanded that the Acadians sign an oath of allegiance to the British monarch, but the Acadians refused, agreeing only to an oath of neutrality (they were Republicans even before the Americans in 1776). That declaration of neutrality, coupled with the threat posed by Louisbourg, prompted the English to enact a deportation order. Le Grand Derangement, or the Great Tragic times, had come, and warring over the resources of the New World (food, furs, wood, and strategic territory) was to forever change the fortunes of the region’s Acadians.

The English, under the notorious Colonel Monckton, captured Beauséjour, a fortification that the French had built to separate an English Nova Scotia from a largely French New Brunswick. Soon after, the English Governor Charles Lawrence signed the deportation or Expulsion order, which was issued by Colonel John Winslow in September 1755. In less than a decade, roughly 15,000 Acadians (more than three-quarters of their New World population) were deported from the region – many put on boats to be transported down the eastern seaboard, others sent to Britain and other British colonies. The thinking was that they would be rapidly assimilated in English-speaking, Protestant areas. Still more Acadians scattered to the far corners of Maine, PEI, Cape Breton, and New Brunswick, aided in their escape by the region’s indigenous groups that they had earlier befriended. Those who were put on ships didn’t fare well, large numbers dying of privations and diseases to which they had no immunity.

When the Treaty of Paris (1763) effectively rescinded the deportation order and the Acadians started making their way back, they discovered that their once-productive farms had been taken over by an influx of English settlers or been abandoned to the dictates of nature. The result is that most returned as a conquered people, settling for less fertile land than they had once had. Many became fishermen and loggers because they could no longer farm. In the words of Antonine Maillet, their most important literary speaker, “the only survivors in the Massacre of the Holy Innocents were the Innocents who knew enough to hold their tongues.” When Acadians came back to New Brunswick after the Treaty of Paris, Maillet adds, they “came home by the back door, and on tiptoe” (Pélagie 7).

By 1784, the Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution (17751783) had claimed New Brunswick as an English bastion, imposing their own colonial administration. Because the Acadians were Catholics, they couldn’t vote, nor did they have the civil rights of the English. They came home, then, as second-class citizens. Symbolic of their plight was the Conservative (read Loyalist here) election slogan of the 1870s: “Vote for the Queen and against the Pope” (qtd. in Thorburn 33). Their centuries-long struggle for equal citizenship had begun.

Acadians showed themselves to be resilient, however, working indeed under the radar. By the 1840s they were electing representatives to the region’s legislatures, and, in 1864, Collège Saint-Joseph was opened, an important step in cultivating an educated and politically active population. The Collège de Sacré-Coeur followed a generation later in Caraquet.

The year of Canadian Confederation (1867) saw the first French-language newspaper published in New Brunswick (Le Moniteur acadien), followed by the long-lived L’Evangeline (18871982), both vital for information distribution, for gathering a like-minded community, and for fostering public opinion. Important Acadian National Conventions followed, the first at Memramcook in 1881 attracting upwards of 5000 people. Those conventions were especially important in adopting the symbolism around which Acadians rallied (a national holiday, patron saint, flag, anthem, etc.). Aided by religious orders of nuns and priests, Acadians slowly gained footholds in New Brunswick. The Catholic orders were vital in bringing health care and education to the province’s French-speaking populations, and their communitarian systems of practice and belief opened Acadians to the cooperative movements of Caisses populaires and l’Assomption that would later assist in their economic self-definition.

Acadian Culture and Literature

Because of its disproportionate number of Acadians, New Brunswick is thought of (somewhat ironically) as the Acadian homeland. The irony comes from the fact that “Acadie” is borderless, a culture without sovereign territory but a nation (un pays) nevertheless. Nova Scotia, PEI, Cape Breton, Maine, Louisiana, and other areas of the northeast are also part of Acadie. Perhaps more than territory, Acadian speech, derived from the Poitou region of France, is the community’s true heritage.

Still, New Brunswick is the important centre of the Acadian nation. It is the place where bilingual rights for Acadians were enshrined in 1969 and 1982; where equal rights for both language communities was further entrenched in the Canadian constitution in 1993; where L’Acadie Nouvelle, the Acadian daily, is published; where Université de Moncton resides; and where the Acadian Literary Renaissance germinated and took root.

Centuries earlier, Marc Lescarbot composed the first French literary texts in North America in 1606. Much of Acadie’s history and culture followed orally rather than in written form, some of it, as Antonine Maillet’s early work reveals, rooted in the fabula of French writers François Rabelais and Molière. Folktales and songs were the important forms in that regard, as was institutionalized Catholicism, church registries recording vital statistics, family genealogies, and parish histories. Often the priest was the only member of the post-Expulsion community who could read and write. Even as late as the 1960s, less than 5% of Acadians had attended university – and the majority of the population was still functionally illiterate (Thorburn 21-39).

The first Acadian story of lasting significance was not written by an Acadian but about the Expulsion. American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline came out in English in 1847, and had a huge impact on Acadians. It was translated into French and published in Quebec by Pamphile Le May in 1865, and became required reading at Collège Saint-Joseph soon after. It was also released in serial form in the region’s Acadian newspapers. A long poem about two lovers separated at the time of the Expulsion, Evangeline’s faith and constancy in searching for her Gabriel became a flash point for Acadian hope and resilience. As much as any other story or circumstance, the poem affirmed the uniqueness and strength of a people. Acadians, the poem said, had been wronged by imperial history, but they had endured, thus their legacy was not one of conquest but of survival. It was the first time that anyone had spoken of them.

Over the next century Acadians rapidly emerged from their cultural isolation. Key was the victory in 1960 of New Brunswick’s first elected Acadian premier, Louis Robichaud. Robichaud was elected on the promise of revising the province’s public and social services, everything from taxation to rural equalization. His reforms were deeply unpopular with Anglophone elites in south, the most outspoken of which, businessman K.C. Irving, used his newspaper empire to turn his opposition into an English-French, Protestant-Catholic dispute. Such reforms, said one of his Fredericton editors, were nothing more than “robbing Peter to pay Pierre.” The polarization fuelled Acadian nationalists, who had been similarly played by the Catholic church and Loyalist administrators for most of their history – and who were closely following the gains made by Francophones in post-Duplessis Quebec. By the late 1960s that nationalism boiled over in Moncton with student protests (196869), the most infamous of which saw a severed pig’s head delivered to the doorstep of Moncton’s English mayor Leonard Jones. The NFB film L’Acadie, l’Acadie (1971) chronicled those times and the central role played by the Université de Moncton (1963), Robichaud’s crowning achievement. In Raoul Boudreau’s estimation, the university “propelled Acadie out of 19th-century folklore into 20th-century interpretations of Marxism, class struggle, power relations and the resulting student protests” (xviii).

Central to that political activism were the poetry nights (nuits de poesie) that galvanized young Acadians toward cultural distinction. The poetry of the period, as the authors in this module will illustrate, was a literature of action, of declaration, and of protest. Politics, not aesthetics, was its opening salvo, for young artists felt that their community’s time had finally come. Their work would set the historical record straight while also casting light on what official history had blacked out. Poetry was action in the same way that resilience was resistance. Literature was the means of giving a voice to the silenced, but also of renaming and reclaiming lost lands. The unofficial cultural mantra became prise de parole, the taking up of speech. Since identity had long been preserved in language, Acadian French would be central in the revolution to establish a collective identity.

The so-called Acadian Literary Renaissance was therefore as much a revolution (social and cultural) as a renaissance. Anchored at the Université de Moncton, where the Centre d’études acadiennes (Acadian Studies Centre) opened in 1970, the revolution gained traction with the 1971 release of the Nutter-Leblanc report on social welfare in New Brunswick (Participation and Development). Widely critical of inequities in the province along language and population lines, the report lent scientific and scholarly authority to what many Acadians in New Brunswick were experiencing. As if on cue, Antonine Maillet’s La Sagouine (1971) was published. A radio play that told the story of a poor but verbally gifted Acadian washerwoman in mid-century New Brunswick, the work was an imaginative account of exactly the inequities, structural and otherwise, that Nutter and Leblanc had brought to light. When Maillet’s multi-part monologue was released, it galvanized a people around its language – it was accompanied by a lengthy glossary so readers could look up the Acadian words that had been lost to history – thus pointing a way forward for Acadians who had reason to be doubtful about their futures.

What followed were important literary works by Raymond Guy LeBlanc (Cri de terre, 1972), Guy Arsenault (Acadie Rock, 1973), and Herménégilde Chiasson (Mourir à Scoudouc, 1974). The founding of Les Éditions d’Acadie in 1972 enabled these young poets to speak in their native tongue. “For these writers,” observes Boudreau, “poetry was not a solitary activity but the incandescence of a fire simmering in an entire class of Acadians, adjusting spontaneously to collective goals and aspirations. … [T]heir poetry became the founding act of a revitalized nation” (xx). Acadie had come of age.

That said, the anti-Acadian, anti-French sentiment runs high in New Brunswick, serving to divide the province and to make difficult meaningful exchange across language lines. As in the early 1700s, today’s 21st-century Acadians are caught somewhere in the middle, neither French (as Canada defines Quebec) nor English (as New Brunswick defines its majority population). Acadie is thus a paradox: a nation without borders or statehood, and still neutral in the larger political dramas that preoccupy its fellow citizens. Nevertheless, the literature that has come from its artists in the last two generations is some of the best literature ever written in the province. The mere longevity of the Renaissance, now spanning almost 50 years, is a rarity, and is a testament to the seriousness with which Acadians regard their culture, language, and art. That the vast majority of English-speaking New Brunswickers know almost nothing about Acadian literature or history is a great failing of the province’s public education system.

Works Cited

Boudreau, Raoul. “Poetry as Action.” Unfinished Dreams: Contemporary Poetry of Acadie. Ed. and Trans. Fred Cogswell and Jo-Anne Elder. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1990. xvii-xxvii.

Maillet, Antonine. Pélagie. 1979. Trans. Philip Stratford. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2004.

Nutter, Dean H.L., and Emery Leblanc. Participation and Development: Report of the New Brunswick Task Force on Social Development. Vols. 1 and 2. Fredericton, NB: Province of New Brunswick, 1971.

Thorburn, Hugh G. Politics in New Brunswick. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1961.

What to Expect in the Literature

The most likely question to be asked about this module is Why include French literature in an English-language curriculum, even if that literature appears in English translation? That is a fair question, especially in New Brunswick, where, despite legislated bilingualism and all the promise it entails, a divisive biculturalism has been the norm. New Brunswick is a province of two solitudes (two dominant language cultures) and the politics of language has been used on both sides to serve ideological ends. Including Acadian literature in this English-language curriculum, then, serves a number of purposes. It recognizes that Acadians are a large, vibrant, and essential community in the province; it acknowledges that Acadians have advanced far beyond English New Brunswickers in their cultivation and preservation of cultural enterprise; it celebrates the world-class achievement of Acadian writers; and it reaches across the divide in the province to declare that building bridges between both language communities is vital for our future. Put simply, we will not advance as a province until we find better ways to come together.

Language is as important to Acadian writers as it is to Indigenous peoples. Both are working very hard to keep language, the storehouse of their culture and history, alive. For Acadians, writing in French or its various vernaculars (Chiac the most well known) is a political act in a province where being Francophone has led to secondary or at best minority status. A useful way to approach Acadian writing, then, is to think of it as an alternative consciousness within New Brunswick. That consciousness does indeed reveal the struggles of minority citizens, but it also reveals the enlivened, resilient, and deeply humane spirit of a vibrant people. The Acadian voices in this module are humorous and playful, and generally more daring linguistically and metaphorically than many of the Anglophone writers we’ve encountered. That is not to imply that Acadian writers are better or more experimental, but that their narratives and styles differ from the dominant Anglican/Protestant/Loyalist forms that we’ve encountered.

Because language shapes perspective, Acadian literature, even in English translation, offers English New Brunswickers a vista to different ways of seeing the province. We should be grateful for that perspective, just as Acadians should be grateful for the perspective we offer.

Featured Authors

  1. Ronald Després
  2. Antonine Maillet
  3. Raymond Guy LeBlanc
  4. Guy Arsenault
  5. Herménégilde Chiasson
  6. Rose Després
  7. Gérald Leblanc

Further Reading

Belliveau, Joel. “Acadian New Brunswick’s Ambivalent Leap into the Canadian Liberal Order.” Creating Postwar Canada: Community, Diversity, and Dissent, 1945-75. Ed. Magda Fahrni and Robert Rutherdale. Vancouver, BC: U of British Columbia P, 2008. 61-88.

Boudreau, Raoul. “Poetry as Action.” Unfinished Dreams: Contemporary Poetry of Acadie. Ed. and Trans. Fred Cogswell and Jo-Anne Elder. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1990. xvii-xxvii.

Daigle, Jean, ed. Les Acadiens des Maritimes. Moncton, NB: Chaire d’études acadiennes, 1981.

---, ed. L’Acadie des Maritimes. Moncton: Chaire d’études acadienn, 1994.

Grady, Wayne. “Acadia, Acadia! ... the real story is fascinating and full of surprises.” Queen’s Quarterly 105.3 (Fall 1998): 382-91.

Griffiths, Naomi. “Acadians.” Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples. Ed. Paul Robert Magocsi. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999. 114-136.

Jobb, Dean. The Acadians: A People’s Story of Exile and Triumph. Mississauga, ON: J. Wiley and Sons, 2005.

Lord, Marie-Linda. “Modernity and the Challenge of Urbanity in Acadian Literature, 1958-1999.” New Brunswick at the Crossroads: Literary Ferment and Social Change in the East. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2017. 129-53.

Lord, Marie-Linda, and Denis Bourque, eds. Paysages imaginaires d’Acadie: Un atlas littéraire. Moncton: Institut d’études acadiennes, 2009.

Maillet, Marguerite. Histoire de la littérature acadienne: de rêve en rêve. Moncton: Éditions d’Acadie, 1983.

Maillet, Marguerite, et al., eds. Anthologie de textes littéraires acadiens: 1606–1975. Moncton: Éditions d’Acadie, 1992.

Paratte, Henri-Dominique. People of the Maritimes: Acadians. Halifax: Nimbus, 1998.

Richard, Chantal. “Emergent Acadian Nationalism, 1864-1955.” New Brunswick at the Crossroads: Literary Ferment and Social Change in the East. Ed. Tony Tremblay. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2017. 45-72.

Tremblay, Tony. “Antonine Maillet, Marshall Button, and Literary Humor in New Brunswick: Towards a New Hybrid that Can Subsume Ethnolinguistic Division.” Lire Antonine Maillet à travers le temps et l’espace. Ed. Marie-Linda Lord. Moncton: Institut d’études acadiennes, 2010. 91-108.

---. “Strategy and Vision for an Intercultural New Brunswick in the Recent Poetry of Herménégilde Chiasson and the Translation of Jo-Anne Elder.” Quebec Studies: Special Issue on Literary Translation 50 (Fall 2010/Winter 2011): 97-111.

Wilbur, Richard. The Rise of French New Brunswick. Halifax: Formac, 1989.

How to Cite

Use of material in the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English is restricted to scholarly, research, or educational purposes only. Use should include appropriate citations. The following citation is an example of how a researcher should cite the author pages for Antonine Maillet:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “Antonine Maillet.” New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English. Fredericton: UNB Libraries, 2020.

The following citation is an example of how a researcher should cite the module pages for The Acadian Renaissance, the module within which Maillet appears:

Tremblay, Tony, James William Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell. “The Acadian Renaissance: Background and Context.” New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English. Fredericton: UNB Libraries, 2020.