Acadia on our minds

The Globe and Mail, Canada
April 6 2004

Acadia on our minds

A musical adaptation of Antonine Maillet’s epic novel of the Great
Expulsion of 1755 is being staged against the backdrop of renewed
interest in this dark chapter of our history, KAMAL AL-SOLAYLEE

Wednesday, April 7, 2004 – Page R1

If lyricist and musical-book writer Vincent de Tourdonnet and
composer Allen Cole didn’t spend the past seven years collaborating
on their musical adaptation of Antonine Maillet’s epic novel about
the Acadian expulsion, Pélagie-la-Charrette, you’d think they were
busy manipulating historical dates and rearranging recent events to
give their long-awaited show maximum cultural mileage. As their
musical — retitled Pélagie: An Acadian Odyssey — opens tomorrowat
CanStage’s Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto, its historical moment
couldn’t be more fortuitous.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Samuel de
Champlain and the establishment of the first French settlement (in
what is now Canada) between New Brunswick and Maine. The Acadian
community in North America is counting down to next year’s 250th
anniversary of the 1755 Great Deportation (also known as the Great
Expulsion or Le Grand dérangement), during which thousands of
Acadians (a neutral, French-speaking Maritime community) were
separated from their families, dispersed across the continent and
also sent back to Europe after refusing to swear allegiance to the

Last December, after decades of diplomatic efforts, Ottawa endorsed a
royal proclamation acknowledging the wrongs inflicted on Acadians
during the Great Expulsion.And while English Canada was too busy
following American Idol or recreating a local version of it, last
year’s winner of Quebec’s Star Académie was Wilfred LeBouthillier, a
handsome young Acadian from the fishing town of Tracadie-Sheila,
N.B., who took la belle province, particularly its thriving tabloid
culture, by storm. Shortly thereafter Acadian author and journalist
Herménégilde Chiasson was named New Brunswick’s 29th

Earlier this year at the Stratford Festival, a successful workshop of
a musical by Don Carrier (book) and Anaya Farrell (music) of American
poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s pastoral poem Evangeline —
inspired by the same events as Pélagie — suggests that its
production date is getting closer and that our fascination with
Acadian culture and folklore is entering a new phase to sustain not
one but two major Canadian mainstream musicals. (An American musical
version of Evangeline by composer and lyricist Paul Taranto aired on
some PBS stations in 2000.)

Why the sudden interest in a community and a culture that has been
part of the Canadian landscape, symbolically if not always
physically, for centuries? And, more peculiarly, why now? Is there
some historical lesson at work here, or is Acadian culture the
equivalent of the urban bus that you wait so long for and then two or
three turn up?

There is evidence to suggest the former hypothesis wins: It’s Acadia
and not Georgia that’s on our minds, and for good reasons. The
Acadian experience is an early prototype of numerous processes of
ethnic dispossession and, on a relatively small scale, ethnic
cleansing, that marked various chapters of the past century —
beginning with the Armenian genocide; culminating in the Holocaust in
the middle; and continuing with events in the former Yugoslavia and
Rwanda at the end. The Acadian expulsion resonates with us today in a
world where ethnicities and nationhood preoccupy headlines, and daily
add more and more grey to Kofi Annan’s hair at the United Nations.

De Tourdonnet is only too happy to see his work take on levels beyond
those of romantic musical theatre. “That’ll be my fondest dream,” he
says during a break from rehearsals. “Antonine Maillet never for a
moment saw what she wrote as exclusively a reflection of Acadian
culture. The themes of exile, longing for home, maintaining the
culture, are all striving to be universal.”

The musical focuses on Pélagie Leblanc (Susan Gilmour) who gathers
her family from the southern parts of the United States to begin
their long journey home to Nova Scotia. De Tourdonnet’s adaptation
(Cole also gets a credit as a book writer) doesn’t shy away from the
more shockingly depressing aspects of the journey (death, violence,
anti-Catholic prejudice) and, though fictional, is historically
sensitive and faithful to the political events behind them.

“It’s a dark, dark chapter of Canadian history and, of course, the
darkest chapters are the most fascinating,” he says. “I think,
historically, there has been an attempt to sweep it under the

But it’s more than historical significance (or amnesia) that makes
Maillet’s novel a seminal work about a seminal event. Maillet
intended her book as a response to the myth of Evangeline, as
rendered by Longfellow.

“She wanted a new myth for Acadia,” de Tourdonnet suggests.
Historians and literary critics agree that Longfellow took numerous
liberties with details of the expulsion, and the result is a “very
Victorian,” in de Tourdonnet’s assessment, take on Acadian history
where suffering and sublimation of desire assume the place of
political and cultural affiliations.

“There’s not a lot of conflict in the poem,” Carrier, better known as
a Stratford classical actor says, on the phone from Stratford. “There
are many lines about people working in the blooms and in the field.”

Instead, and as development on the musical continued over the past
five years, the original narrative “left us with a huge opportunity
to create a story using the poem as a kind of framework.”

The work’s contemporary resonance posed the possibility of updating
it and setting it in Yugoslavia, Carrier says — a scenario he
considered and abandoned.

Just as well. No myth is in more need of a cultural re-evaluation
than Evangeline, an early example of life cashing in on art.
Evangeline’s Odyssey, an exhibition at Nova Scotia’s Acadia
University Art Gallery in 2002, examined how the poem proved just as
enchanting to the commercial sector in the Maritimes as it did for
the American public — chocolate, bicycles, toothpaste bearing the
name of Evangeline — and to a tourist industry that still organizes
trips to “the Land of Evangeline.”.

“I know from talking to people in Acadia that they don’t like the
story very much. It makes the society a bit kitsch,” Carrier says.

It’s not a coincidence that the two grand narratives of the Acadian
expulsion are named after and feature women. For de Tourdonnet, it
was part of the book’s attraction.

“Our greatest heroes in the world are mothers protecting their
children but we never think of them as such,” he says. “There’s an
incredibly feminine character to our Canadian culture, and I think to
some degree the French-Canadian culture has had some effect on the
fact that that’s true of Canadian culture in general.” Don Cherry’s
comments earlier this year about the less-than-manly habits of
French-Canadian hockey players, de Tourdonnet says, “tapped into
something that’s not without its significance. And, coming from the
other side, it’s something I’m proud of.”

And while the actual events of the expulsion and the subsequent
scattering of a people remains tragic, there is something else to be
proud of in the Acadian experience.

“It’s the idea that their culture can exist whether or not they have
a chunk of land that’s ethnically their own,” de Tourdonnet explains.
“They can just exist and the celebration of that . . . is something
completely contemporary and significant to almost every country in
the world where they are minorities struggling to find their place
within the federation. To Canada, too,” he adds. “The fact that our
cultural identity can be considered more important than our national
identity is part of what this story suggests. We can be who we are,
and there’s nothing contradictory about it.”

At a time when these Canadian values are under attack by both
hate-mongers and right-wing commentators, the example of Acadia —
distinctive despite attempts at assimilation and assimilated while
remaining distinctive — should provide a role model to countries as
diverse as Sudan, Iraq or Spain, and even, it could be argued, for
the North American native population.

Instead of our own mini version of a pogrom, it becomes a story of
cultural survival and resistance. Viewed within an anthropological
framework, Acadians join other diasporic communities that challenge
the old assumption that “there is an immutable link between cultures,
peoples, or identities and specific places,” in the words of Smadar
Lavie and Ted Swedenburg in their book Displacement, Diaspora, and
Geographies of Identity.

The irony of an English-language musical about a French-speaking
people hasn’t escaped de Tourdonnet, who’s bilingual and of French
and Eastern European descent. “This is the most significant place in
Canada that I can be within the musical scene.”

For de Tourdonnet, who first met Maillet when she translated his
English musical about Joan of Arc into French for a production in
Montreal, there is no one else he’d rather entrust with the
translation of this musical version. “No question about it. Antonine
will be the one to translate it,” de Tourdonnet says. Something about
history and full circle comes to mind.

Pélagie: An Acadian Odyssey runs at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre
from tomorrow through May 1.