The earliest settlements in Acadia (1604) were among the first efforts to establish a French colony in the New World. Located in what has become Nova Scotia, originally named Arcadia by Verazzano in 1524, this historical Acadia was the result of sustained immigration from France, mainly after 1632. Settlers, most of whom came from the French region of Poitou, gradually appropriated the Acadian territory, concentrating along the shores of the Baie Française (now the Bay of Fundy).
The prospering colony soon became an object of strife between England and France and repeatedly changed hands until 1713 when the Utrecht Treaty made it a permanent British possession. The Acadians then chose to claim a neutral status, refusing to swear allegiance to the British Crown.
Consequently, in 1755, the British authorities began to dismantle the former Acadian colony by deporting its entire population, leaving the lands free to be taken over by British subjects. During the Seven -Year War (1756-1763), Acadians were systematically tracked down and exiled, unleashing a French-speaking exodus to various regions, including many areas of Québec.
Known as the Grand Dérangement —literally “The Great Upheaval”— this episode of Acadian history can be viewed as the single most significant event on which the modern Acadian sense of identity was built. Although quite disrupted by British attacks during the first half of theeighteenth century, the former French colony suffered its fatal blow in 1755, with the systematic deportation of all Acadian settlers. Deprived of their homes and farmlands, seeing all their possessions seized or destroyed, Acadian families were packed onto ships, and sent away with nothing but few personal belongings.
Some escaped deportation by fleeing through the woods, reaching the Chaleur Bay or the Saint Lawrence Valley. But most Acadians were to endure the Grand Dérangement as a long-lasting period of exile, when wandering families would suffer as outcasts almost anywhere they roamed. Some reached places where they could ultimately settle down —most notably in Louisiana—but many chose to return north, to New Brunswick or Québec. Among these, some found work with fishing companies then active in the Gulf of Saint-Lawrence, and eventually settled close to fishing stations in the Magdalen Islands or along the Lower and Middle North Shore.
Modern Acadia is consists mainly of communities in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and also in the Cajun population still present in Louisiana. However, the importance of Acadian immigration in Quebec is greatly underestimated, as Acadians have intimately blended into Quebec’s cultural landscape.
This Acadian presence can be easily recognized in the Chaleur Bay area, specifically around Bonaventure and Carleton, but it is also quite visible in the Magdalen Islands.
“AcadianFrench” is also spoken on Québec’s North Shore, in Baie-Comeau, among the Cayens at Havre-Saint-Pierre, or with the Vigneault of Natashquan. This Acadia within Québec can again be traced to various villages in Lanaudière and the Monteregian area, in Mauricie and the county of Bellechasse —where pioneer families were, to a large extent, of Acadian origin. Indeed, references to Acadia in community or local street names, as well as the frequency of Acadian family names in phone books, all bear witness to how significant Acadian immigration was in settling most of Québec‘s regions.
Nearly a thousand Acadians found refuge for a while at Restigouche, deep inside Chaleur Bay, where a French military outpost lay. The place later fell to British forces in 1760, urging survivors, most of whom were from Beaubassin (Amherst, Nova Scotia) and Île-Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island), to scatter around the Bay. That same year (1760), a first group of exiles would settle in Bonaventure, while in 1766, others would reach Tracadièche (Carleton). These early newcomers, joined by others at the end of the war or upon their return from exile, ended up settling new Acadian communities in the vicinity: towards Caplan, Maria, Nouvelle, St-Omer, Cascapedia or St-Elzéar, all villages that were founded by heirs of the original Acadians.
Many groups of Acadian exiles also came back to settle in the Magdalen Islands, first brought there by merchants engaged in the local fishery. Other Acadians joined them later, after long stays in Saint Pierre and Miquelon, France or elsewhere. Descendants of Magdalen Islands Acadians would in turn leave the islands to settle on the North Shore, namely in Kégaska, Natashquan and Havre-Saint-Pierre, while others, even later on, would leave the Magdalen Islands to settle at Lac-au-Saumon, in the Matapedia Valley.
At the time of the Deportation, many Acadians made their way into Québec, where they were granted farmlands. In the process, several Acadian villages emerged: Saint-Gervais-de-Bellechasse (1756), Saint-Jacques-de-l’Achigan (1766), Saint-Grégoire-de-Nicolet (1767), and L’Acadie (1768)—communities that came to be known as “petites Cadies” (literally: “Little Cadias”).
In several areas, such as Lanaudière, the Middle North Shore, Lac-Saint-Jean, Bois-Francs or Beauce, the settling of Acadians often occurred as a second or third migration that brought earlier refugees to new lands. Quite a few Acadians also moved towards the larger cities of Québec where descendants of the Acadian exiles are in the thousands.
It is estimated that today, among Québec’s population, more than a million (or more than 15%) people bear Acadian origins.