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Maine’s Acadians grasp hold of their heritage : They fear their past is slipping away. A cultural center would be a boon to preservation efforts.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When he answered the phone in his furniture store the other day, Leo Daigle Jr. began speaking English to a customer. Moments later, the phone rang again. This time, he spoke French.

Like many of the residents of this small town and others along the St. John’s River valley bordering the Canadian province of New Brunswick, Daigle is used to alternating between French and English--sometimes in mid-sentence.

It is a habit acquired growing up in one of the densest Franco-American enclaves in the country. Many of the 25,000 or so residents of the valley trace their ancestry to the French Acadian pioneers who settled Canada’s maritime provinces in the early 1600s.

Descendants of those same pioneers make up the Cajun community in Louisiana. But unlike their Southern kin, known for their spicy cooking and festive celebrations, Maine’s Acadians, who live in an isolated region 250 miles north of Augusta, have until recently been content to live in relative obscurity.

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But that may soon be changing. As a result of a federal act signed recently by President Bush, the National Park Service has been authorized to acquire the land on which to build a Maine Acadian cultural center in the state. A commission will recommend sites for the center and identify other properties or artifacts of significance to Acadians.

The Maine bill was modeled after an act providing for two Acadian cultural centers and a visitors’ center run by the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana, now under construction.

The Maine center, which still requires funding for construction, would offer displays of Acadian artifacts, along with research and meeting facilities.

Maine House Speaker John L. Martin, who is of Acadian descent, said he hoped the center would educate the public about his people--including their repression at the hands of British and American governments.

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“The history of the Acadians has never been told to the American people,” Martin said.

The history includes two expulsions, the first in 1755, when British troops occupied what is now Nova Scotia, forcing the Acadian settlers to flee. Those who went by sea scattered throughout the colonies. Some settled in Louisiana.

Those who went inland settled in New Brunswick. But many were forced to move once again, up the St. John’s River to the Madawaska region, after Americans loyal to Britain migrated to New Brunswick during the Revolutionary War.

In their history since, Acadians say they have had to overcome not only the travails of a harsh climate, but discrimination by English-speaking people.

Even today, some valley residents express bitterness that they were prevented from speaking their native French in school, or teased because of their accents.

“In my generation . . . we not only thought our language was bad, but that there was something wrong with us. It’s taken our generation a lifetime to overcome that,” said Judy Paradis, 46, a state representative of Acadian descent.

But Paradis said many in her generation, the first to be widely college educated, have begun to take pride in their heritage and to worry about losing it. “For the first time, we really feel our language is being threatened.”

Many say the trend resulted from the migration of young people out of the area to fight in World War II and later to seek job opportunities.

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Guy S. Dubay, director of historical collections at the University of Maine at Ft. Kent, said the war and its aftermath shattered the “very strong ethnicity” that had existed in the region as a result of its relative isolation and proximity to French-speaking regions in Canada.

Today, many Acadians who remain lament that their children are abandoning the language. “They understand it, but they only speak French if they have to,” said Doris Gendreau, a shopkeeper in Madawaska.

Many in the valley have already begun trying to revive interest in Acadian history, with some success.

The Madawaska historical society has sponsored an annual weeklong festival in town since 1978, attracting as many as 4,000 people.

“There has been a resurgence of interest of people in the valley in our heritage,” said Elmer H. Violette, a retired Maine Supreme Court justice who is of Acadian descent. He said the cultural center would be a boon to the preservation efforts already under way.

“This is going to put it together and make it really liveable and believable,” said Marcella B. Violette, who wrote a doctoral thesis on Acadian history and is married to Violette.

“At least this will keep the heritage here,” said Caryl Albert, a Madawaska travel agent, “so we don’t forget where Acadians came from.”


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