Opinion

Maine Acadian Day

June 28 is still Maine Acadian Day.

Even though events surrounding the arrival and existence of Acadians in Maine is recognized and celebrated in August, Maine Acadian Day is still on the books as a state recognized day of commemoration. It doesn’t mean much anymore, replaced by the August 15 International Acadian Day and buttressed by festivities that were once specific to Madawaska’s Acadians.

The historical context of Maine Acadian Day and its placement in the month of June has apparently lost its significance. The first Acadian settlers to the St. John Valley arrived here in the spring of 1785, taking advantage of the river flats to sow crops that were needed to endure the pending winter. The flats, formerly the bottom of a giant lake in prehistoric times, were relatively treeless, without large stones, and flat, as their designation suggests. Crops such as wheat, root crops and other vital provisions could be planted with minimum effort, insuring the settler’s survival into the next planting season.

June 28 was designated to recognize the arrival of the Acadians to the Valley at a time convenient to their needs. This, apparently, is no longer significant to those who choose to recognize August as the time for acknowledging the Acadian presence in the St. John Valley.

I’m reading a book by Hannah Arendt at the moment describing the plight of refugees and other ‘stateless people’ and how that phenomenon affected the development of political totalitarianism. In no uncertain way, the Acadians would have been considered ‘stateless’, particularly before, during and after the Seven Years War, or the French and Indian War for those who choose that definition. We all know the story of Le Grande Derangement, and the displacement of the Acadians by the British and their New England allies. What we probably don’t know, or choose not to acknowledge, is the period after the War, when the Acadians whose descendents now reside in the St. John Valley, lived in large measure in southern New Brunswick and Quebec.

This is where history presents ironies. The British in New Brunswick were being overwhelmed by a certain phenomenon called the American Revolution. By ‘overwhelmed’ I don’t mean American colonial incursions of the fighting kind, but refugees of the Loyalist variety; American colonists loyal to the King of England and Great Britain. They needed a place to crash land and New Brunswick proved one of more suitable sites.

The Acadians, however, were already occupying some of the choicer bits of New Brunswick real estate and the Loyalists were proving obstreperous and too numerous for the British government in New Brunswick to handle diplomatically. Something had to give way. That would be the Acadians. Various arrangements, ranging from purchasing property to outright eviction were being made to compel the Acadians to go elsewhere. Plans were being made to move several of these Acadian families farther upriver in the upper St. John River Valley area, by request of the Acadians and design by the British provincial government.

Here’s where things seem to work out for most concerned. The Acadians removed themselves from conflict with the American Loyalists who were arriving in droves, and the British Government conveniently secured a foothold against American expansion in the upper regions of the St. John River. The first family groups of Acadian settlers arrived in the upper St. John River area in 1785 and the rest is history. Actually, all of it is history. The British later granted official deeds to the settlers in the Valley ‘by order of King George III’. According to the research, the native Maliseet permitted these Acadians to settle on what was traditionally their land.

The Hannah Arendt that I’m reading points up the nature of statelessness and the difficulty securing basic human rights. While the Acadians were displaced a second time after the initial Grand Derangement the process was more fortunate afterward in that it worked out to the satisfaction of most concerned. The native Maliseet would insist that the land was not King George’s to give away, but that turns into one of these unfortunate historical complications that vex us to this day.

Here, I suggest the Acadians were fortunate, the British too clever by half, and the natives shortchanged at the expense of their traditional land. The issue of stateless refugees was resolved to the satisfaction of most, but not all. That’s not the issue here however.

Maine Acadian Day June 28 is one of those discarded acknowledgements of local history, placed inconveniently on the calendar where other dates and festivals take precedence. The Acadians arrived here in the Valley in the spring of 1785. That is partly why the date was fixed in June.

We forget such things at our peril. The separation of families happening at the southern border with Mexico is a modern tragedy caused by that same historical amnesia, and the very absence of human rights Hannah Arendt so eloquently describes. Acadians should be be mindful of the phenomenon and the complexities involved.

Acadian Day June 28 is a day for reflection on such matters.

Dave Wylie’s life and work experience runs the gamut from newspaper editor to carpenter to grant writer to boat builder with lots of other work wedged in-between. Wylie currently is president of a management company that oversees an elderly housing complex and president of the local historical society. He resides in Madawaska.

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