Driving through Canada’s Acadian history

Adjacent to Quebec is the Maritimes, a vibrant Francophone colony with a dark past and a unique modern-day culture that has only recently opened up to travellers.

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.

Heading south from Shippagan, the raw oceanfront scenery of meadow-topped cliffs and hidden sandy bays calls like a siren song. Tranquil Kouchibouguac National Park, around 200km away, is the perfect way to see the region as early Acadians would have. Fringed by the sea and streaked with tidal rivers, it is studded with beaches, birdlife and breathtaking sand dunes. There is also some easy hiking – go for the 1.9km Bog Trail’s boardwalk route, a one-way nature walk that includes a viewing tower vista of grass-fringed Kelly’s Bog.

By the time your reach the town of Shediac, 95km south, you will likely have worked up an appetite. A popular summertime destination – not just during July’s Lobster Festival (10 to 14 July 2013) – visitors often come for lobster-tasting boat trips. Shediac Bay Cruises will take you out on the water, pull pots onto the boat and show you how to crack and eat the finished product like a local.

Off the map
From here, many veer from the official route and take a 25km detour to Moncton. One of New Brunswick’s biggest cities, it is an ideal place to grab an end-of-day beer. Like a hard-working Acadian who has been in the field all day, pick a pint at downtown’s Pump House brewpub, where the malty Fire Chief Red Ale and a seat on the sun-licked side street patio is recommended.

But Moncton should not be the end of your Acadian exploration. Just more than 22km southeast of the city, the town of Memramcook’s Monument Lefebvre  is one of Canada’s most important Acadian sites. Symbolising the culture’s 19th-century renaissance – Acadians began returning to the region in the late 1800s  – the handsome red sandstone college building became Atlantic Canada’s first French-language degree-granting institution in 1864.

Now an Acadian cultural centre, the interactive exhibits explore the long story of the region’s Acadian people. There is also an excellent bookstore; look out for tomes on Acadian cooking. The recipes – including such exotic fare as roast porcupine and goose tongue – show how the early French colonists adapted to their surroundings, making use of the all the ingredients they could find as they built their new lives in the New World.