Cape Breton Island: The Acadian Miracle

Highlight Tenses used in the Text

The vibrant Acadian spirit thrives in Nova Scotia's small communities against incredible historic odds.

BY MARIO PROULX, text and photographs courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission

Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia

Some 20 years ago I was sent to the eastern coast of Cape Breton Island to report on a damaged oil tanker that had leaked thousands of tons of dark gluey substances on its generally beautiful pristine shores.

This trip gave me the opportunity to discover amazing landscapes, places filled with history, such as the Fortress of Louisbourg and, some ten kilometres south, Isle Madame, home to Acadian fishermen who speak with a strong accent. I promised to return one day and, happily, I did.

Nova Scotia, particularly Cape Breton Island, has become a choice destination. But tourism didn't develop there by chance. The natural beauty is simply stupendous and visitors are warmly welcomed. What is less well known, but easily discovered, is the wealth of cultural heritage.

The Acadians and Scots who settled here 300 years ago left influences that remain to this day, as much in architecture and speech as in music and food. Granted, there is also the more ancient presence of the Micmacs, to whom Acadians owe a debt of gratitude, but more on this later …

The call of the open sea

Reputedly one of the world's most scenic routes, the Cabot Trail needs no introduction. Travelling clockwise in a northwest direction, one embarks upon 300 kilometres of roads that cut through mountains and cliffs dominating the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, wrote about Cape Breton in these terms: “I have travelled the world over, I have seen the Rockies, the Andes, the Alps and the Scottish Highlands, but I have never seen anything to match Cape Breton.” I agree!

Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia

Just before reaching the most spectacular part of the Trail, one crosses a series of Acadian villages: Belle Côte, Terre Noire, Cap Le Moine, Grand Étang and Chéticamp. These are home to three thousand Acadians who still speak French. Their isolation allowed them to preserve their culture. Initially, only a dozen families settled in the area, specifically in the hinterland, a few kilometres from the sea, out of fear of being discovered by the British troops and deported once again, as in 1755. Today they live close to the sea and share the beauty of their villages with visitors passing through. Their story comes alive at the Acadian museum in Chéticamp.

The Acadians of Chéticamp have preserved an exceptional legacy of traditional French songs. When they play the violin, their reels echo the sounds of bagpipes and Scottish violins. Tourists are advised to stop at the local restaurants to sample traditional foods: “chiard”, grated potato pancakes, “fricot” and meat pie.

If you spend the night in Chéticamp, consider stopping at Maison Laurence, the B&B home of Sylvia Lelièvre. She loves to talk about her part of the country and would not leave it for anything in the world. “We enjoy the simplicity of life and we are close to nature, only eight kilometres away from a wonderful national park,” she says. “Even though we must drive two hours for Chinese food, we feel at home here. There is a strong feeling of solidarity among us, due mostly to our isolation, to winter. We invite each other to dinner and plan three hours for shopping at the Co-op because we take time to chat with everybody.”

As a singer and songwriter, Sylvia Lelièvre has expressed her attachment to her homeland in a song entitled Mon pays (My Country): “I could never leave this beautiful land, where love and friendship are a way of life. God has made his paradise here – the mountains and the sea and peace of mind.”

Fortress of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia

Louisbourg: a step back in time

Having passed the northern point of Cabot Trail and Cape Breton Island, a visit to the Fortress of Louisbourg, one of our country's most important historical sites, is a must. This site features a reconstruction of the village and fortress on the foundations of the former French stronghold.

Once inside the walls, you'll feel you have stepped back in time to 1744: the streets are busy with costumed laundry women, bakers, soldiers, members of the nobility and musicians going about their business in period costumes. You can attend military exercises, complete with canons and muskets, or visit stores and reconstructed homes. Don't miss it!

Continuing south approximately 80 kilometres from Louisbourg, one reaches Isle Madame, which is accessible by bridge. This island offers another page of Acadia's fascinating history. It is still inhabited by French and Basque descendants who have earned their living from fishing here for 300 years. The island's villages are named Martinique, d'Escousse, Poulamon, Poirierville, Cap la Ronde, Petit de Grat, Cap Auget, Arichat and Port Royal.

Isle Madame's Acadian families were also deported in 1755, and again a few years later when American troops passed through, but the Micmacs welcomed them, hid them and protected them for three years. Micmacs and Acadians have mixed in many ways, through love and friendship. Many Micmac words have slipped into the Acadian vocabulary that is used on the island, notably for naming game and fish. From way back, Natives have always been welcome on Isle Madame.

The words of historian Gabriel Leblanc, from Isle Madame, pay homage to this: “We have Native blood in us. When an Indian came to the island to pick medicinal plants, my grandmother, who was a midwife, always gave him the best bed in the house. She was aware of the role played by Natives in our survival and it was important to welcome them with dignity.”

Cape Breton Island is more than a series of pretty postcards. Anyone who takes time to visit the island will realize there is a lot to see and learn, not only about the present but also about the past.

Isle Madame, Nova Scotia

For more information on this or other Canadian destinations, visit the Canadian Tourism Commission's website at travelcanada.ca.

Getting there:

  • For more information on this or other Canadian destinations, visit the Canadian Tourism Commission's website at www.travelcanada.ca.
  • Maison Laurence, 15408 Main Street, Chéticamp. Information: 902-224-2184
  • Musée Acadien, 744, Main Street, Chéticamp. Information: 902-224-2170 or www.co-opartisanale.com
  • Cape Breton Island is linked to the continent by road, thanks to a dike that crosses the Strait of Canso, between Auld Cove and Port Hastings
  • By plane, you can fly to Halifax with Air Canada (1-888-247-2262 or www.aircanada.ca), Air Canada Jazz (1-888-247-2262 or www.flyjazz.ca), Tango (1-800-315-1390 or www.flytango.ca), Can Jet (www.canjet.ca or 1-800-809-7777) and Jetsgo (1-866-440-0441 or www.jetsgo.net) from many Canadian cities. During the summer, Jetsgo also flies to Sydney on Cape Breton Island.
  • ViaRail (1-888-842-7245 or www.viarail.ca) and Greyhound (1-800-661-8747 or www.greyhound.ca) also link Nova Scotia to the rest of the country.
  • Finally there are ferries from Argentia and Port-aux-Basques, Nfld., to North Sydney, N. S. (1-800-341-7981 or www.marine-atlantic.ca) and from Wood Islands, P.E.I., to Caribou, N.S. (1-800-565-0201, 902-566-3838 or www.nfl-bay.com).
  • For general information on Nova Scotia: www.nouvelle-ecosse.com or
  • 1-800-565-0000.

Mario Proulx works for the CBC French-language radio network. Following a year of work, he has just completed a series entitled La route en chansons, which will be broadcast across Canada next summer, allowing listeners to visit various parts of the country through songwriters and their songs. Mario Proulx is himself a professional songwriter. He practised journalism for twenty years.