Nova Scotia (Acadie) & Cape Breton – a Cultural Tapestry

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Located on Canada’s Atlantic coast, ‘New Scotland’ consists principally of a long thin, peninsula and culturally distinct Cape Breton Island to the North East.

Peggy’s Cove iconic lighthouse

Nova Scotia is distinctly maritime with no one living more than about 50 km’s from salt water. It has ebbed and flowed from geo-political and strategic importance, to a sometimes rather forgotten region (except for those who live there, of course).

Much of the peninsula is rocky, dotted with lakes and a wild coastline. Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse is rightfully one of the most photographed places on earth.

In deference to the important maritime history of Atlantic Canada, the Bluenose Schooner has long been pictured on Canada’s 10c coin.

Modern Nova Scotia is home to nearly 1 million people, half of whom live in the Halifax region. There are several well known universities, a booming (but seasonal) tourism sector and lobster. Lots and lots of yummy lobster!

During its history, the province has been touched, scarred and enriched by many cultural influences, and this tapestry remains present – and always friendly. 

Looking out to Halifax Harbour from the Citadel. The Harbour is the second deepest (after Sydney, OZ) natural harbour in the world.

When one arrives to Halifax, you will see signs for ‘Africville.’ Here is the story of Canada’s new $10 note (awarded ‘best new bank note). Until the 1960’s, Africville was home to black Canadians, many of whom could trace their roots back to the underground railway and the war of 1812.

When the first Europeans arrived in 1497, the principle inhabitants of the region were the Mi’kmaq. They are still there and had a particularly warm relationship with the Acadian French settlers – many of whom were expelled by British colonials.

Edward Cornwallis established Halifax in 1749. In order to clear the area he far over-spent his budget by paying for Mi’kmaq scalps. By 1755 his forces began expelling the somewhat neutral French Acadians from the fertile Grand-Pré region.

The memorial to Evangeline, Grand Pre, Fundy

Of about 14,000 Acadians in New France, over 11,000 were expelled. Many of Les Acadians found refuge in Louisiana. Acadian became Cajan. Now this special culture exists in the cold north and the steamy bayou.

This is a long, complicated and generally sad story. It was best captured by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic 1847 poem, Evangeline – A Tale of Acadie. This is both moving and significant.

“So on the hearts of the people descended the words of the speaker. Silent a moment they stood in speechless wonder, and then rose Louder and ever louder a wail of sorrow and anger, And, by one impulse moved, they madly rushed to the door-way. Vain was the hope of escape; and cries and fierce imprecations Rang through the house of prayer; and high o’er the heads of the others …” Evangeline A Tale of Acadie Part the First – IV – H. W. Longfellow

If interested, simply google/search ‘the expulsion of the Acadians’ to understand a time-line of events. It is often forgotten that many of Europe’s wars played out in North America, and just how tragic it would have all been.

There are a few conclusions that may be drawn about Acadian culture and history. Firstly, Acadians are a cultural group distinct from other French speakers in Canada and North America. Upwards of 30% of New Brunswick’s current population speak Acadian French – with a smattering of communities in Nova Scotia, PEI, Newfoundland and Maine (and of course Louisiana).

Worth visiting in Halifax

They have their own accent, music and maritime traditions. I personally find this culture extremely appealing. Moncton NB, located on the tidal bores carved by the Bay of Fundy (home to the biggest tides on earth) is the most bilingual community in Canada and therefore probably North America.

French Canadian nationalist mythology tells a tale of partnership and friendship with the First Nations. A reading of 20th century history – particularly in Quebec – does not vitiate this claim, but the Acadians who farmed the shores of Fundy were regularly allied with the Mi’kmaq in resisting the British and colonial forces. Clearly by the mid 1700’s there was some sort of partnership.

Then New Scotland is formed

While the Acadians were being sent abroad and the Mi’kmaq scalped, the peoples of highland Scotland were being forcibly removed from their lands. Scotland had bankrupted itself with the Darien Scheme (read here) and the land was worth more for raising sheep than letting people live as they did. Oh, and they lost the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness.

The Hector (reconstruction)

The European ‘middle ages’ were not a nice time.

In 1773, the Hector sailed into the post of Pictou near the top of the peninsula, carrying nearly 200 Gaelic-speaking clans people from the north Scotland. At 45 degree latitude, Pictou is much further south than the Scottish highland, but the cold Canadian currents must have meant the land felt familiar.

So Acadia become New Scotland without direct conflict between the Highland Scots and French / indigenous settlers who had been in the region for nearly 100 years.

All of this mix is best exhibited when driving through Cape Breton. Gaelic is still spoken (sadly in vastly reduced numbers) as is Mi’kmaq and Acadian French.

Once Île-Royale, with France’s important Louisbourg Fort, Cape Breton (most French came from Brittany and Normandy), Cape Breton is now home to fewer than 100k people. The coal mines have closed and tourism is limited to a few months, but signs can be bilingual English / Gaelic, French or Mi’kmaq!

And Alexander Graham Bell lived there! (link)

Nova Scotia in Canada

The next big wave into the region were the empire loyalists. In 1776 the United States was the first ‘country’ in the Americas to become independent. *Haiti was the second.

Halifax Airport

Those who remained loyal to Britain began to migrate north. ‘Canada’ became distinctly more English speaking. Upper Canada emerged as did New Brunswick.

In 1876 Nova Scotia plays a pivotal role in the formation of the Dominion of Canada and as the new country expands west, many Maritimers migrate. Halifax remains an important port and was extremely important in both world wars.


The Halifax explosion (and a friendship with Boston)

On December 6, 1917 Halifax was destroyed. This is no exaggeration. When a French munitions ship collided with a Norwegian ship in the narrowest part of the harbour, the small, bustling (and at that month, wintry) city, experienced the largest human-made explosion until the atomic bomb.

The city was wiped out, thousands died or were injured and so many made homeless. This is a tragedy of tragedies and the only good to come of it was the kindness of the people of Boston. Bostonians rallied, sent aid and rebuilt Halifax.

Now friends for life, every year the people of Halifax send the best tree they can find to celebrate Christmas in Boston.

There is so much to read about all of this. Before my last tour, my erudite group read: The Great Halifax Explosion, by John U. Bacon. I myself am halfway through.

Modern Nova Scotia is doing well economically and has proudly become a ‘have province’ (contributing more to Canada than it takes out). Due to historic migration out of the province and region, all of this dense history is on display. Not bad to speak English, Gaelic, Mi’kmaq and French all in one day. Then to celebrate, one may enjoy lobster, haddock, oysters and local wine :).

Up on the Cabot Trail, in Cape Breton’s highlands

It is an interesting place. Deeply Canadian, yet with its own identity. Nova Scotia was revealed by receding glaciers after the end of the last ice age and the hard rock that defines much of the territory has retained echoes – and living cultures – of those who have passed through, or made it home.

The province’s beauty is obvious, but its subtle mosaic – tapestry – takes time. Rather than the famous ‘Farewell to Nova Scotia,’ I prefer ‘until next time’.

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