COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Piece of Old World survives in Canadian Maritime Provinces

One of the appealing features of touring the Maritime Provinces is the diversity of cultures in a relatively compact area. The Atlantic seaboard of Canada was first settled by the French, then ceded to England as reparations for wars fought in Europe. As a result, settlers from both countries came to North America to escape the military strife and religious intolerance that shook the Old World in the 17th and 18th centuries during transition from monarchies to republics.

Tucked within the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are pockets of French Acadians who survived the British persecutions after the French were sent into exile in 1755. Elsewhere in these provinces and on Prince Edward Island, the culture and lifestyle is strongly influenced by the large Celtic population that immigrated to Canada when the English expelled the French. Even today there’s a feeling of the Scottish highlands and the rolling hills of Devon complete with cozy villages, pubs, bagpipes and fiddle music.

I discovered the Canadian Maritimes after a trans-Canada train tour and returned the next year for more exploration. Driving in the three provinces is a pleasure with good roads and light traffic. The scenery is magnificent, especially on Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island (referred to locally as PEI). A week would cover the tourist highlights, but a longer trip would allow time to stop over in a discovered retreat.

Begin the tour in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is served by all the major airlines. A visit to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic offers history of this major port of entry to Canada. It is the closest landfall from the British Isles across the North Atlantic; that’s why many Titanic passengers are buried there.

My itinerary for the Maritimes focused on the contrast of the historic French colony to the later British occupation that created a multiethnic nation of Canadians still closely associated with the British Commonwealth. From Halifax, continue around Cape Breton beginning on the west shore of the Cabot Trail. A stop at Judique or Inverness is a step back into early Celtic traditions brought here by the early Scottish and Irish settlers. Fiddle music, beer and bangers are their heritage and are shared every night in local taverns and in national festivals.

Further out on the Cabot Trail is a modern-day Acadian settlement at the gateway to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The town of Cheticamp offers local craft work and authentic Acadian food and, of course, the flag of l’Acadie, the French tricolor with a gold star, flying from every flagpole and storefront. In a short hour you are transported from a Celtic environment right into a French-speaking 18th century village.

Completing the tour around the northern end of the Breton peninsula will require an overnight stop to allow a full-day tour of another historic French outpost, Fortress of Louisbourg, on the eastern shore of the cape. The oldest French settlement, although not officially Acadian, is where the French military held their ground for a century of conflict with England. It is like Williamsburg in Virginia, secured within walled fortifications that enclose an 18th century environment of costumed workers and soldiers going about their daily functions. This fortress was the last French colony to surrender to British rule in 1745.

After Cape Breton, the tour moves north through New Brunswick to the bridge leading to PEI. This island province has all the charm of the English countryside. The picturesque fishing villages provide a bonanza of seafood, especially world-famous oysters and lobsters. A key tourist attraction is the farmhouse living museum modeled after "Anne of Green Gables."

If travel time permits, drive north in New Brunswick to Caraquet on an isolated peninsula, where the Acadian Culture Center is a living outdoor museum of French colonists, much like Williamsburg in Virginia depicts lifestyles of the English colonists. Here is a unique community, speaking an ancient form of French, proudly displaying the tricolor l’Acadie flag. It feels like crossing a border into a foreign country, but it is still Canada.

There are other pockets of Acadian culture, especially along the shores of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. The capital of l’Acadie and the earliest Acadian settlement was at Annapolis Royal (called Port Royal as the 1605 French colony). This was the principal staging area for the deportation of the Acadians in 1755, so tragically described by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his epic poem “Evangeline.”

After touring the historic sites of early colonization of the Canadian Maritimes, the tourist has a better understanding of the ongoing cultural division between the French and English provinces. Periodically the Québécois coalition proposes withdrawal from the Canadian nation. It has never passed voter approval, but the concept of two distinct ethnic identities is certainly obvious to the tourist.


Ford is a freelance writer located in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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