Acadians Find Key to Harmony Between French and English
French speakers in east Canada worry that the battle to resist the English language, culture is far from won
SHEDIAC, NEW BRUNSWICK — STUDENTS at the regional French high school in Shediac didn't need time to think about their views on last week's sovereignty vote in neighboring Quebec. "No!" they shouted en masse.
"Our students opposed the vote because they knew that if Quebec broke away, they would be left isolated," says principal Raymond Cormier, who also serves as deputy mayor of this seaside town in the heart of French-speaking Acadia.
"While Quebec has its referendums, Acadians have learned to live in harmony," he adds. "We've had to, we've been a minority so long."
As French-speaking Quebeckers regroup after a narrow defeat for sovereignty, Francophones in New Brunswick say they are close to a "model of cohabitation" with majority English speakers in their own province.
But they also worry that the battle to resist the English language and American culture is far from won.
French speakers make up 86 percent of the province of Quebec, but only 35 percent of New Brunswick. For Quebec separatists, the way to preserve their language and culture is by breaking away from Canada. New Brunswick's Acadians insist that assimilation can best be avoided by drawing on the resources of the whole Canadian nation.
"We are all constantly aware of the American presence south of the border," says New Brunswick Finance Minister Edmond Blanchard.
"But we are convinced that Francophones can preserve their culture better within Canada than outside of it," Mr. Blanchard said.
The key to the Acadian model is a strict equality between minority Francophones and majority Anglophones. A 1981 New Brunswick law mandates bilingualism at all levels of provincial government. In Quebec, minority English speakers need special authorization to attend English schools, while here in New Brunswick, parents can choose between two parallel systems.
Investing in French culture
"New Brunswick is a social laboratory, competing with the melting-pot model that dominates North America," says Lise Ouellette, president of the New Brunswick Acadian Society, the province's main French-speaking lobby.
"We spend millions and billions to save species and plants," she adds. "Why not invest as much in human cultures?"
An October proposal of the New Brunswick Acadian Society urges a policy of "zero assimilation" and calls on the Canadian government to protect and promote the cultural identity of its citizens.
But the group insists that no strategy to resist assimilation could be effective without Quebec. "In a Canada without Quebec, the Francophone population would be 5 percent, a number well below the minimum necessary to constitute a critical mass," the paper argues.
For this reason some 35 busloads of Acadians trekked northwest on the eve of the Oct. 30 sovereignty vote to urge Quebeckers to vote "no" on breaking away from Canada. Nonetheless Shediac's City Hall lowered its own Acadian flag in favor of the blue-and-white flag of Quebec days before the vote to express affection for Quebeckers.
Francophones throughout Canada credit Quebec with launching the 1974 language laws that stemmed what appeared to be the inevitable Anglicization of Canada. But Acadians say that their strategy for the future is very different from that of their Quebec neighbors.
"Quebec says that if you have too many English speakers, you'll lose your French," says Shediac Mayor Raymond LeBlanc. "But that's not what's happening here.
"We've made big progress in the last 50 years in winning respect for the minority language," he adds. "We've always had to fight to get what we have today, but they've started to respect us. When I went to school, our books were English, and we were French. Shediac's business community was once all English. Now it's 95 percent French."
Dubbed "the world lobster capital," Shediac is a resort town whose population triples during the summer months. The first French-speaking newspaper in eastern Canada was founded here. Shediac's Louis-J. Robichaud High School was the first French secondary school built in the province - named for the first Acadian premier of New Brunswick.
Regional activists say that Shediac's successes in developing French culture reflects progress for Francophones across the province.
"Acadians are well anchored in this province," says Lucille Colette, superintendent of the Shediac regional school board. "We are no longer the feeble recipients of government subsidies. We're part of the motor that ensures the development of New Brunswick. Acadians play a dynamic role in this province. We have a bilingual work force and strong cultural and economic links to Quebec."
"No other minority community [in Canada] has the weight we have," says Michel Doucet, dean of the Moncton University Law School and former president of the New Brunswick Acadia Society. "Our demographic weight is concentrated in the north. In other provinces, French speakers are more dispersed. We have the ideal environment for making bilingualism work."
Problems of assimilation
Francophone activists concede that the future of the region's language and culture will be played out in the day-to-day banter of its young.
"Now it's video all over," says Principal Carmier. "Even our students pick up English much faster than French, in music, video games, television, and reading. If you have a group of 50 kids and one English speaker, everyone will speak English."
"The mission of our French school is to give students a grounding in French," he adds. "All classes but one are taught in French. But the problem today is not taking up two languages, it's mastering them."
In Quebec, Francophone separatists express the same doubts. "We're not succeeding in making French the language of daily usage," says Gilles Grenier, president of the Parti Quebecois in Quebec City. "We are teaching students French, but we see that the minute they go into recreational situations they speak English. We are slowly Anglicizing."
High school students on a break from classes in downtown Shediac say they spend most of their days studying French in school, but spend all their free time speaking English and listening to American music.
Many also say they are proud to be Acadians. For others, bilingualism is the key to future jobs.
To be Acadian is to be aware that "we got deported," says high school student Darryl Cormier. Some 7,000 Acadians were brutally forced off their lands by British authorities in 1755, an event immortalized in the (ironically) English-language poem "Evangeline" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. To Longfellow, Acadia was "home of the happy," a label New Brunswick Francophones are glad to adopt.
Art student Dawn Lirette says she now sees herself as an Acadian artist. "In Acadia we're always together," she says.
For Michel Melanson, who says he prefers to be called "Tiger," the appeal of French language and culture is that "it will help us get jobs. You can't even get a job here waiting on tables without it," Tiger says.
"Bilingual workers are one of the strength of our economy," says Mayor LeBlanc. "You'll have a better chance for a job if you're bilingual.
"Fifty years ago, if you wanted to have a job here you had to change your name," he adds. "That's why we have so many Whites and Browns in the phone book, which were once LeBlanc and Brun.
Heading up an 18-member French trade delegation from the north of France in New Brunswick last week, Elena Spalletti says the province was chosen because of its bilingual work force.
"We could have purchased new electronic equipment from the United States," she said. "But we were looking for Francophone partners."