For the women of Acadia


Cassie Deveaux Cohoon

The announcement made by Parks Canada, in February of this year, declaring the Acadian woman Jeanne Dugas to be “a person of national historic importance for Canada” should make us stop to reflect on all our pioneer Acadian women.  We pay lip service to these women.  We have all heard the saying that, “It was the women of Acadia who kept the dream of their homeland alive and preserved its culture for their children and grandchildren.”  But do we ever stop to consider what this means?

Jeanne Dugas was born at Fortress Louisbourg in 1731 where she grew up. She then found herself caught up in the political events that marked the early history of our country.  The wars between France and Britain that resulted in the triumph of Britain and the deportation of the Acadians, disrupted her life.  The expulsion of the Acadians separated families and scattered a people throughout the British colonies and parts of Europe and as far south as the West Indies.

Although Jeanne and her family managed to avoid deportation, it set them on an odyssey that took them from Ile Royal (now Cape Breton) to the other areas settled by Acadians in the Atlantic provinces, until one by one they were all taken over by the British. They had to displace themselves by ship, moving in fear of British warships and of falling prey to privateers, and sometimes found themselves betrayed by people they had trusted. But that is only the historical outline.

For the women like Jeanne who were in the midst of the battle, the day-to-day reality was of the struggle to survive in a war zone.  The war was not somewhere else, it was here.  They had to find food, shelter, give birth, mourn lost family members, and sometimes pass the winter months in a temporary shelter, anxiously wondering what political news would arrive on the first ships to cross the Atlantic in the spring, and what it could mean for them.

For the women who were deported, it meant being put on a ship without knowing where they were going.  Often, as was the case in Grand Pré, the women were put on different ships from their husbands and sent to different destinations.  Acadian extended families were close and there might be the additional worry for the fate of relatives, hoping against hope that there would be news of elderly parents and siblings.  And how could you explain to your children what was happening? And where were you going and how would you cope? 

Amazingly, against heavy odds, some Acadians managed to escape deportation, and many of those who were deported managed to return to what had been their homeland. Prevented from returning to their rich farmlands and from becoming tradesmen, the Acadian men became mostly fishermen.  Their wives, who had been equal partners on the Acadian farms, now had a strong role as head of the family when the men were absent on their fishing boats.

These people remained in their hearts Acadians.  They were permitted to have their language and their religion, which enabled them to remain their own people, but at the same time kept them apart from the economic mainstream of their communities.  The language made them “other” and the Catholic Church was a strict taskmaster who put the emphasis on childbearing, hard work and sacrifice in order to guarantee eternal life in heaven.  Admittedly, life was hard for most people during the 19th century and the first part of the 20th, but even more so if you were considered a second class citizen.

But the brave and courageous women of Acadia coped.  They accepted heavy religious duties and raised large families.  Many of them kept a small family farm going while their husbands were away on their fishing boats.  If in many instances they had lost members of their extended family, these were replaced by their neighbours and fellow Acadians.  And they managed to keep a spirit of “joie de vivre” around family celebrations, preserving their traditional love of music and song.

It seems to me that most families have a story about a special Acadian mother or grandmother who inspired them.  Not by some grandiose deed, but by the fact that she raised a large family under difficult circumstances, that she managed to give love to all her children, and  that she made sacrifices in many small ways so they could have more.  Always with the hope to create a better life for the next generation.

Jeanne Dugas and her husband Pierre Bois eventually settled in Cheticamp and were one of the founding couples of the village in 1785.  On August 15th,  the national holiday of the Acadians, Jeanne Dugas will be honored in Cheticamp with the unveiling of a plaque in her memory.

 As we honor Jeanne Dugas, I hope we will think of all our brave and courageous Acadian mothers and grandmothers of the past.

by Cassie Deveaux Cohoon

the above appeared in THE INVERNESS ORAN,
 Inverness, N.S, on 6 July 2016