Acadian History at the Grand Pré National Historic Site

After giving me a brief introduction to Acadian history Victor took me on a tour of the facilities. The Grand Pré National Historic Site is actually a large piece of land that was donated about 100 years ago by a local businessman by the name of John Frederick Herbin who was an Acadian descendant. He gave the land to the Dominion Atlantic Railway with the condition that it be made accessible to Acadians forever. The company later gave the site to Parks Canada which turned it into a National Historic Site.

The New Visitors and Interpretation Centre houses a multimedia theatre, an exhibit hall, a gift shop, a multipurpose room and administration area along with other visitors’ facilities such as restrooms, public phones, etc. The entire facility is run jointly by Parks Canada and the Société Promotion Grand Pré, which represents the Acadian community. The grounds around the Centre are made up of flat farmland, a winding river and railway tracks that still serve for freight transportation.

Bronze sculpture depicting deportation of Acadian family

We walked outside the Centre and Victor pointed out to me a metal sculpture on the side of a long, low-lying hill that consists of 4 life-sized individuals, representing an Acadian family that is being torn apart by the deportation. This sculpture was unveiled just a few weeks ago, on September 3, 2006. Victor mentioned that the sculptor was looking for an appropriate place to position the sculpture once it had been transported to the Grand Pré site from Montreal. The sculptor was unable to find a proper location for his masterpiece, pacing for hours through the entire property. Finally he found a spot, right there on the hillside. He just knew that this was where the sculpture would have to go. Through archeological research it had been discovered earlier, unbeknownst to the sculptor, that an Acadian house had been located right next to the sculpture and the foundation of this house is now outlined by wooden stakes. Hearing about this psychic connection between Acadian history and a present day sculptor gave me the goose bumps, and this example just underscores the spiritual and historic significance of the Grand Pré National Historic Site.

Fall colours at the Grand Pré National Historic Site

Victor also enlightened me that the Grand Pré is a location of reconciliation. During the 2004 celebrations to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Acadians, tens of thousands of Acadian descendants congregated in the Grand Pré area for a reunion. The local Shaw family, a Planter family who was assigned to settle the area after the expulsion of the Acadians, invited the descendants of the Thibodeau family, who had come from all over North America, to stay on their property. Only two families had ever lived on this stretch of land: the Thibodeaus and the Shaws. The Shaws as a matter of fact, had coined a phrase “Be careful of the tippie-toes”, which really meant “Be careful of the Thibodeaus”. Both groups of families celebrated together and the Shaws stated that they were not the owners, but rather the keepers of this land, and that their home would always be open to the Thibodeaus.

The celebrations proceeded with exuberance until one man, a Thibodeau family member from Quebec stated in front of everyone “I only have one thing to say: we Thibodeaus are going to come back and take this land”. The entire crowd gasped at the thought of implied conflict until he continued “I am going to marry Sarah”. Sarah was a member of the Shaw family. The audience breathed a collective sigh of relief. This vignette is just one of many stories of reconciliation and forgiveness that have taken place here in the Grand Pré area.

Statue of Evangeline with Memorial Church in background

Victor and I crossed the railway tracks and approached the Memorial Church, built in 1922. In front of the church is a statue of Evangeline, heroine of an 1847 poem by American author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “Evangeline” tells the story of a young Acadian woman who dedicates her entire life to searching for the man she loves from whom she was separated at the time of deportation. The tragic story concludes with Evangeline finding Gabriel, her true love, on his death bed in Philadelphia.

Beside the church Victor pointed out some archeological excavations to me. The Grand Pré site is a significant historic site and ongoing archeological research has turned up more clues about early Acadian life in the Grand Pré area. When Victor had to say goodbye to me as he was on duty at the Memorial Church, I went back inside the Visitors Centre and watched a brief yet extremely informative video about the history of the Acadians which effectively tied it all together for me.

The Deportation Cross in the Minas Basin

After leaving the Visitor Centre I decided to drive a few kilometers east to the actual deportation site in the Minas Basin. The Deportation Cross was erected in 1924 to commemorate the deportation of 2000 Acadians who were deported from this very site.

As I started to make my way westwards towards Annapolis Royal, another originally Acadian settlement, I reflected on the significance of this site for one of the founding cultures of Nova Scotia. I was amazed at the perseverance and the power of the human spirit displayed by hundreds of thousands of Acadian descendants who have lived in diaspora all over the world and for centuries have managed to survive and hold on to their cultural heritage despite much adversity that they have experienced. Despite all this human tragedy and upheaval, the stories of reconciliation and forgiveness found here at the Grand Pré National Historic Site are a sign of hope for all us.

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