In Canada, history is written on the land.
If you really want to know this place, then you will need to learn to read the land itself and how to interpret its various texts. In the North, the ubiquitous, harpoon-like formations of hardened snow the Inuit call aqalluaq (Inuit for tongues) elevated inches above the white frozen ground will tell you which way the northeast wind blows and point you home.
Off the coast of the Digby Neck, the spit of land that extends down from Annapolis and the North Mountain on the backside of southern Nova Scotia into the Bay of Fundy, the two or three fishing weirs that are still operational will tell you that high tides bring the herring in. It is a way of fishing mostly redundant now, though it survives in a couple of places along the Neck.
The arrangements of 12 m, hewed pine trunks pounded into the sand look like enormous bass clefs, the nets strung between them visible only at low tide. They are the script of fishers who understood, in the Newfoundland novelist Donna Morrissey’s words, that they were farmers, not hunters. That the proper way to secure a harvest is to take a portion of the ocean’s bounty, not all of it—and not to drag its bottom senselessly, ruthlessly and destructively, as the mechanized boats serving only man’s insatiable appetites do.
Work shapes the land—it writes it, rewrites it, and then writes it again. Before generations of fishers wrote their script of weirs along the shore, the Acadians used an alphabet of aboideaux, an ingenious system of dikes and sluices, to write their story upon this first Canadian territory—marsh by desalinated marsh.
The Acadians are to the Canadian territory as the Boers are to South Africa’s—which is to say that, although this venerable community was in the beginning descended from Europeans, they also constitute the first truly Canadian tribe.
They inhabited the land around Annapolis, NS, the settlement French explorer Samuel de Champlain founded in 1704. It was wet and bog-ridden then. But the Acadians developed an ingenious system of sluices that prevented the ocean’s high tides from flooding, yet allowed rainwater to irrigate and rinse the ground of salt and then leave it. This technology allowed the Acadians to farm and to flourish, establishing prosperous communities in the territory of Nouvelle-France one year, Écosse the next—land they had written their story on and to which, understandably, they became very attached.
But their prosperity prompted them to be resented by the French and the English, the two colonial powers battling it out in the 18th century, to resent them, for Acadia’s was a republic on contested terrain. In 1755, persevering in their hope of neutrality and having refused an oath of allegiance to the English King, the Acadians were notoriously expelled by the British. They were loaded onto ships and transported to the American colonies. There, they left behind Acadian names, such as Gaudet, Thibault and Robichet, as far away as Louisiana and the Carolinas before these ardent refugees eventually found their way back. Though it was not to the Nova Scotian farmland that had been expropriated by then, but to forests and rocky coastland the English did not want.
In Nova Scotia, the Acadians settled in the southwest of the province—not around Grand Pré or in the fertile Annapolis Valley and land that had once been theirs, but along St. Mary’s Bay, between present day Digby and Yarmouth facing Maine. The Acadians became fishers, the reds, blues, yellows and pinks of their houses distinguishing them from the severe white of the English United Empire Loyalist houses across the water, and said to be leftover colours from painting their boats. The colours are more sentences, the further document of a people whose legacy is remembered on the land—and orally.
Listen to its vivid miscellany of French and English words and phrases. With its corners turned at high speed and its gentle rollicking, Acadian French is a language spoken practically and without prejudice. Having rejected both warring regimes long ago, it belongs to neither of the old solitudes, but is the first genuine Canadian tongue. It evolves as the country does, and is rooted not in books but in the conversations of Acadie (a mythical, not a real land) that are spoken around the bins of the Frenchy’s outlets selling remaindered clothing in Yarmouth or Meteghan, and in roadside diners offering haddock and scallops, of course, but also clams and rapûre pie—a dish of slightly fermented potatoes, baked and sometimes shredded with chicken.
At Chez Christophe, a congenial family-run inn and restaurant in Grosses Coques, NS, a trio plays music Thursday nights sitting next to the old stove that is the very hearth of the place. The young woman playing the fiddle with her blond hair tied back and to the stomp of one foot is creating music that sounds a lot like New Orleans Zydeco—no surprise, the whole history of le grand dérangement is in that tune.
And hear Acadia’s song on the radio station that transmits, on CFZZ 104.1 FM, from County Clare—or “Clarh,” as it is pronounced locally. There is no better way to attune yourself to this delightful and idiosyncratic culture that has managed to thrive here since the British exercise in ethnic cleansing of four centuries ago, and the true progenitor of Canada, than to listen to its radio hosts and their delightful mix of country and western, Acadian and Cajun tunes with their fiddle and accordion and spirited lyrics singing of love and Tim Hortons between announcements of lobster suppers and sales on car parts.
Magaziner à W. Nelson and note that there’s un nouveau muffler on sale this weekend qui est très bon value and you might want high-definition TV, too, mais maintenant some O.J.Hanson, il va chanter ‘What will it take?’”
The Acadian tongue turns function into song. And if Nova Scotia is Canada’s old soul, washed over as the Mississippi is with layers of fluvial soil and the equally rich silt of peoples—French, English, Scots, Irish, Black United Empire Loyalists, now Somalians, and so on—then the Acadian French Shore, once its vale of tears, is now evidence of Canada’s extraordinary variety and its capacity to be reconciled.
This is where Canada started; this is where it goes on. www.tourismnewbrunswick.ca www.tourismnovascotia.com
If you go Chez Christophe master chef Paul Comeau has transformed the house that his great-grandfather built in 1837 into one of the best eateries in Nova Scotia. www.chezchristophe.ca