For most Canada-bound visitors, the country’s rich French culture – the result of a colonial movement that began in the 1600s – is well known. But while many New France pioneers settled in what later became the province of Quebec, where more than six million Francophones live today, others called the adjoining east coast region, now known as the Maritimes, home.
Centred on the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, this distinct colony of hardworking, independent-minded farmers and fishermen – delighted to have new lives far from the feudal subjugations of old France – called their adopted land Acadia. The name was derived from the Greek name Arcadia and was first used to label the eastern coastline of North America by 16th-century Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano.
But when Britain won control of the region in 1713 after decades of war with France, the Catholic locals quietly resisted Britain’s attempts to impose Protestantism and the English language.
In 1755, the Brits responded by launching what became known as “the Expulsion”. As many as 18,000 Acadians were violently removed from their homes, crammed into cargo ships and sent south to British American colonies including Virginia and Pennsylvania. More than half are estimated to have died en route.
But in recent years, the Acadian culture has been rediscovered, and the area is still home to Canada’s second-largest French community after Quebec. Started in 1994 and staged every five years, the World Acadian Congress sees an estimated 50,000 attendees partaking in parades, live music, culinary events and reunions where Acadians trace their families back through the generations. Along with Quebec, New Brunswick will host the upcoming congress from 8 to 24 August 2104.
A road trip through time
Of course, if you do not want to wait for a taste of Acadia’s dark and fascinating culture, take in at least part of New Brunswick’s Acadian Coastal Drive. More than 400km long, the easily navigated ocean route that reaches from the town of Dalhousie to Port Elgin includes several worthwhile stops, including the Acadian Historic Village.
Opened in 1977 near the New Brunswick coastal community of Caraquet, one of North America’s oldest Acadian towns, the historic village is like a tasteful theme park: dozens of wooden buildings dot the bucolic farmland, while costumed interpreters (from grubby urchins to hoity school mistresses) stroll around, bringing the past to life.
There are period recreations, from blacksmithing to bread making, and visitors weave between houses meeting the people that “live” in them. Alongside authentic dance and music performances – including plenty of fiddle music and fast-moving step dancing – Acadian food also takes centre stage. Quebec is known for its poutine (fries topped with gravy and cheese curds) but the hearty Acadian version, poutine râpée, is markedly different: a boiled potato dumpling enclosing a cooked pork filling; the perfect fuel for farm workers.
Passing red cliffs dotted with squat wooden lighthouses and bright-painted heritage homes flying red-white-and-blue Acadian flags (the French flag with a yellow star in the top left corner), the route’s northern stretch also includes the small, artefact-packed Acadian Museum in Caraquet, which illuminates the lives of the early settlers with historic exhibits ranging from farm tools to lobster traps.
If you time your visit for Caraquet’s two-week Festival Acadien each August – this year from the 1st to the 15th – you will also see how lively the culture still is. With concerts of local fiddle bands, French Canadian acts from Quebec, fireworks displays and a French-language Acadian poetry contest, the shindig attracts thousands every year.
Back on the road, grab a fresh crab lunch at one of several welcoming seafood cafes in the fishing town of Shippagan – a 32km drive southeast of Caraquet – before nipping into the town’s New Brunswick Aquarium and Marine Centre. The family-friendly attraction illuminates Atlantic Canada’s fishing history and also has plenty of live marine critters, from harbour seals to a celebrated blue lobster or two. The azure-hued crustaceans, found only on North America’s Atlantic coast, are genetic mutations sometimes caught by local trawler men.