Crossing Borders

PrintPrintEmailEmail

A nice bonus of a June visit to St. Andrews is that you can catch up with early spring all over again. Tulips and daffodils will have just come into bloom, and the sweet perfume of lilacs will be vying for attention with the tang of ocean air. The sprawling Algonquin Hotel presides over the town. It was built in 1889 by William Van Home, an American and the genius of the Canadian Pacific, who wanted to encourage vacation travel by rail. Designed in a style that could be called Tudor Resort, with timber-framed whitewashed walls and turreted red roofs, the hotel is embraced by a huge porch where contented guests set in motion battalions of rockers.

About a two-hour drive north of St. Andrews, along scenic Highway 1, lies Saint John, site of the earliest Loyalist landings in New Brunswick. In May 1783, about 3,000 of them came ashore at an old trading post at the mouth of the St. John River. They were known as the Spring Fleet, and as local history has it, they and two subsequent fleets founded the city virtually overnight, surviving the severe winter in huts and tents. A boulder placed at Market Slip in 1923 marks the spot where they landed. Nearby Market Square was from the first, and remains, the city’s social and commercial center. But the bustle of the major port has been replaced by that of a mall of shops and eating places, formed from seven handsome brick warehouses that managed to survive for a century or so before a preservation movement arose in the 1980s.

In July and August, walking tours of the city head out from Market Square. To set the stage for the attractive Victorian cityscape that forms much of the downtown area, the guide relates in vivid detail the story of the horrific 1877 fire that in a day leveled 50 percent of Saint John. The survivors built it all back in just five years, but the fire had burned itself into the city’s collective consciousness. On peaceful Germain Street, a great melted blob of metal measuring three feet across stands as a memorial to this holocaust. It was all that remained of a neighboring hardware store.

With its traditions of Loyalist settlement still alive today, Atlantic Canada has a very English feeling. Driving farther northeast to the city of Moncton leads to a different world. Ironically, this revived center of Acadian culture bears the name of the British general who directed the mass expulsion of the indigenous French population in 1755. Caught in the middle of the imperial ambitions of the French and English were the Acadian people, who had arrived from Northern France as early as 1604. After they refused to sign a loyalty oath to the victors, nearly all of them, some 15,000, were forced into a diaspora that brought them to the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies, and, in the greatest numbers, to the Louisiana territory.

Some managed to escape the roundup, and others slipped back home later to launch a revival of Acadian cultural pride inspired in part by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s immensely popular 1847 poem Evangeline . The author had never traveled to the Acadian lands, but he poignantly recalled the dispersal and the permanent scars it had left: “Wives were torn from their husbands, and mothers, too late, saw their children / Left on the land, extending their arms, with wildest entreaties.”

Today, descendants of those Acadians populate New Brunswick again, and they hold their story close. There is an immediacy to it that for them chimes with modern-day headlines of ethnic cleansing. Université de Moncton’s Musée Acadien provides an excellent introduction to the subject. Beyond Moncton, at Bouctouche, a spit of land reaching out into the bay of the same name, Le Pays de la Sagouine is a fascinating "1950s village” fashioned around the characters in a popular novel from the late seventies, La Sagouine . The title character of that name is a tough, humorous washerwoman who embodies the spirit of her people—worn to the bone but indomitable. In Caraquet, up in northern New Brunswick, the Village Historique Acadien portrays the world Acadians rebuilt as they began to return to their homeland later in the eighteenth century.

Acadians have recently begun crossing borders again, this time willingly. In 1994 tens of thousands of people of Acadian descent traveled from the United States and Europe to New Brunswick for the Congrès Mondial Acadien. Five years later, they held another Congrès in Louisiana. These events have had a huge emotional impact, as families torn apart nearly 250 years ago have begun to restitch their histories. “There’s something people kept saying, and it’s true,” recalls Angela Simoneaux, who reported on the Congrès for the Lafayette, Louisiana, Advocate . “You go to these events and find people who look like your grandfather who died twenty years ago, people who have the same shaped eyes. . . . Like that.”

TO PLAN A TRIP