|IN SEARCH OF ACADIA
Our little Dash 8 is hurled through dense fog and driving rain like a jugglers ball in a carwash.
“This is your captain. The ceiling is too low to land in Mont Jolie, we are returning to Montreal. Please see the Air Canada ground staff on arrival…………………...!”
A mixture of frustration and relief all around. Knuckles finally quit strangling the armrests. Nervous chatter invades the tense silence. We’re all in it together. At times like this, long-held secrets are released to strangers!
Wind can howl up The Gulf of St Lawrence turning fair weather to foul in a flash.
The afternoon flight is seamless and I am soon driving into “The Valley” on Highway #132, the only serious road leading south. Gaspe is divided into 5 regions. The Haute-Gaspesie. Land’s End. The Coast. The Valley. The Bay. Most of the population of around 80,000 live along the coastline. Much of the centre is mountainous, rocky and impassable. A full circuit is about 800 kilometres.
Gaspe is a fist-shaped peninsular, thrusting into The Gulf of St Laurence with The Bay of Chaleur to The South and The St Lawrence River to The North. Relative isolation, especially in winter, has nurtured a unique creative community.
My eventual goal? The 10th anniversary of “La Viree.” A special off-season Acadian festival of music, dance and art launched by the locals of Carleton-sur-Mer for themselves!
I pass through gently rolling countryside. Circular hay bales dot freshly cut meadows. It is October. The forests are flaming with fall colours. Churches in tiny Sainte Angele-de-Merici and Saint Moise cap most cathedrals I know in Western Canada. Their gleaming spires seem to reach for the heavens. Local graveyards are definitely worth a pause.
Lake Matapedia runs almost 25 kilometres from Sayabec to Amqui, the main town roughly ? way along the 122 kilometre highway. Tractor dealers, chocolatiers and bakeries share the brightly coloured main street.
The road follows The Matapedia River. Covered bridges like the 1909 pink Heppell Bridge are a source of pride here. Tiny Sainte-Florence is celebrating it’s 100th birthday with flags and streamers. Road crews build temporary access across the fast flowing river before starting restoration work on the sagging covered bridge at Routhierville.
Salmon fisherman fill riverside parking lots. I finally reach Matadepia at the head of Chaleur Bay, a worthy member of “The most beautiful bays in the world club.”
On to Restigouche, now a missable blip were it not for the Parks Canada plaque marking a pivotal spot in Canada’s history. Here, the French fleet holed up in 1760, and blocked the neck of the bay with their sunken flagship. The British found a way through, scuttled the fleet and claimed all of North America for King and Country!
What is an Acadian? Who are The Acadians that live here?
In 1710, The British, who were constantly warring with the French, sailed into The Maritimes, took Acadia and renamed it Nova Scotia, much to the distress of 14000 French settlers who were well entrenched at the time.
Forty-five years later these settlers, refusing to swear allegiance to the British crown, became a threat to British ambitions and were told to leave “La grande derangement” in 1755.
They fled to France, Louisiana, The Magdalene Islands. Others moved to Gaspe, joining Scottish shipbuilders and fishermen from Jersey, Spain and Britain. Fiddle-playing Irish immigrants, victims of the potato famine, started showing up in the mid 1800’s attracted by the potential of rich red soil and The Catholic church.
With all the intermarrying that followed and the influence that Irish immigrants had on Acadian music, who can claim to be an Acadian?
“Ah, mon ami”, said Jean-Luc Roy at The Acadian museum in Bonaventure, along the coast apiece. “An Acadian is someone with roots in Acadia before Le grand derangement.”
“If a man by the Irish name of O’Donnell marries a Basque from the family of Gousman, he can still be an Acadian if his grandmother was an Arsenault from Acadia even if she married a good Jersey fisherman called Phelps!”
I defer to the phone book. There are 400 Arsenaults in Bonaventure, a town of 2000 inhabitants. Little wonder that 1 in 7 Quebecois claim Acadian roots!
I have passed through Pointe-a-la-Croix, Escuminiac and Nouvelle before reaching my goal - Carleton-sur-Mer. The church is built from “old-country” bricks used for ballast in empty ships returning from Scotland.
The cultural centre is next door and a white marquee billows in the wind just behind. Bienvenue a “La Viree!”
“La Viree” loosely translates as “The Joyride!” It is held between Oct 8th and 10th, well after the last summer tourist has returned home. It is a fall interlude for the locals. In the marquee there is honey. Meade. Winter hats woven from wool shorn from local sheep. Hand crafted jewellery. Apple butter. Truffles.
Sophie Lavoie and Fiachra O’Regan warm up the enthusiastic crowd with a fiddle and bagpipes. So what if they now live in Ireland. Entertainment and sandwiches are free tonight. Only beer and wine require cash!
For 3 days I dance jigs and listen to toe-tapping stuff delivered by musicians from all over Quebec and beyond. There are storytellers. Jugglers. Acrobats.
My favourite event is on the last day. Invitations have gone out to any and all musicians to come and play two tunes in front of a live audience in the little theatre.
I watch them practice. From age to 8 to 80, each gets a tune-up with the long-suffering pianist. Old fiddlers encourage young ones. Grandfathers with grandsons. Then it’s show time!
The MC treats each entry with equal attention. Two ladies supply accompaniment on the piano and guitar, gallantly trying to stay ahead of the performer. The audience loves it and so do I!
Edwige Leblanc, a famous Acadian character in these parts, sits at the kitchen table of her cozy converted stable. A present from her father after a divorce left her homeless. She has heated up a large jar of nourishing soup made from spring vegetables. There are 100 Leblancs in the Carleton directory - Ah but only two people are named Edwige, she announces proudly.
She knits her eyebrows in thought.
“La Viree is all about the community. Life is hard here now the cod have gone. To survive, people pull together,” she says.
It is time to leave all that wondrous Acadian energy behind. I have driven the back roads to Maria at sunset and watched the freshly cut stalks turn orange.
I have passed a controversial wind farm on my way to the top of Mount Saint-Joseph then looked down at the little town and the cresting waves through an early swirling snowstorm. I have learned that Gaspesies, like Newfoundlanders, must often look elsewhere for work or wait out the time between tourist seasons.
Despite my lack of French, I have been generously welcomed into this free-spirited, creative community and I feel lucky to have visited yet another unique corner of this amazing country. Oh and I think I’ve even discovered the meaning of the word Acadia!
IF YOU GO: In summer there are many ways to pack your day. Rent an ATV. A bicycle. A kayak. Climb a mountain. Follow the “lighthouse-trail. Chill out on miles of sandy beaches then take in a festival or two. Don’t forget to drive inland from Highway #132.
Copyright © 2011 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.