Was the Acadian expulsion a genocide? Experts to tackle debate
The bronze sculpture by artists Jules Lasalle and Andre Fournelle, depicting the expulsion of the Acadians which started in 1755, graces the landscape at Grand Pre in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley on February 16, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, June 17, 2019 4:51PM EDT
It is widely accepted that the deportation of more than 10,000 Acadians from the Maritimes in the late 1700s was a crime against humanity, even by contemporary standards.
But could this traumatic event in Canada's early history be considered a genocide?
The Acadian Society of New Brunswick, which advocates for more than 250,000 French speakers and Acadians in the province, revived that thorny debate during its annual general meeting on the weekend.
The non-profit group has decided to appoint a committee of experts, including historians, sociologists and legal scholars, to determine whether the British-led attempt to rid the region of Acadians between 1755 and 1763 was in fact a genocide.
"This is a debate that's been raging within Acadian circles for years and years," said Eric Dow, a spokesman for the group. "There hasn't been a consensus established yet ... There's a lack of closure in the Acadian community."
However, a leading scholar on the subject said evidence to support describing the deportations as a genocide is lacking.
"There's a kind of competition to see whose atrocity is worse," said John Mack Faragher, a professor emeritus at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "Contemporary politics are wrapped up in this."
Having established settlements in Nova Scotia as early as 1604, the Acadians largely avoided conflict with the British military until 1755, when Governor Charles Lawrence failed to persuade a delegation of Acadians to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown.
On July 28, 1755, the Council of Nova Scotia issued an order to deport the Acadians from settlements that were home to as many as 20,000 people.
Men, women and children were forcibly removed from their homes and their land, which they'd farmed for a century. Their houses were torched and their land given to settlers loyal to the Britain, most of them immigrants from New England.
At least 5,000 Acadians died of disease, starvation or in shipwrecks.
The majority of those deported ended up in Europe, the New England states and, eventually, Louisiana, where their descendants have been nicknamed Cajuns.
Dow said the deportations represent a cornerstone of Acadian history.
"It's part of our foundational narrative as a people. It was an incredibly traumatizing event, the effects of which were felt for at least 100 years after the deportation."
Earlier this month, the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls released a 1,200-page report that found systemic violence against First Nations, Metis and Inuit women constituted a form of genocide and a crisis "centuries in the making."
Asked if the commission's conclusions had inspired the creation of the Acadian committee, Dow said: "When it comes to these sensitive issues like genocide ... each situation has to be considered within its own context."
Faragher said the Acadians were victims of a crime against humanity, as defined by international conventions established after the Second World War.
"There's no doubt that a moral atrocity was committed," he said in an interview. "It's a very complicated story. The attempt to try to reduce it to a simple moral binary: was it genocide or not, really misses the point."
To be sure, there were violent incidents and campaigns against the Acadians that could be considered genocidal in nature, he said.
"(But) if you want to talk categories, then you need to get precise," he said. "It's a murky business."
While there are examples of British officers saying they wanted to kill every Acadian, the overall intention of the highly organized deportation scheme was to move the population elsewhere to make room for immigrants from New England, Faragher said.
The expulsions represent ethnic cleansing, not genocide, he said.
"The intention of the Acadian removal was not to exterminate," he said. "Did it have the consequence of killing thousands? Yes. But to bring a charge of genocide ... you must be able to show intent."
Faragher said there's been an long-standing struggle between anglophone historians, who have sought to minimize the expulsion as an act of war, and francophone historians, who have taken offence to what they consider to be a form of ethnic oppression.
In his 2005 book, "A Great and Noble Scheme," Faragher argues the mass deportations were largely organized by the governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley, whose plan was to expand northward.
"The instigation, the momentum all came from Boston," he said, noting that members of the Massachusetts militia helped round up Acadians under the direction of British officers.
"It was the Yankees who did the whole thing."