How Will History Judge Us: The Acadians’ History and Palestine Now

Palestinian children stare out from behind wire placed there to protect them from attacks by illegal Israeli settlers living in Hebron

When Angus Geddes, a member of the Portsmouth & South Downs Palestine Solidarity Campaign, was visiting the eastern seaboard of Canada in 2015, the story of the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia caught his attention.  The more he learnt, the more he was struck by the close fit with the fate of the Palestinians in our own time.  This is his account.

The Acadians were people from the west coast of France who settled on the east coast of Canada in the 17th century along the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.  They successfully reclaimed swampy land along the coast and lived by farming and fishing.  A noteworthy feature of this colonisation was the cordial relations they established with the Mi’kmaq, the indigenous Indian inhabitants.  The two peoples intermarried to some extent and Acadie, Mi’kmaq and mixed-race children played together.  The Mi’kmaq lived on the coast fishing in the summer and in the snowy winter months moved inland for hunting.  As most of the settler farmland was reclaimed  –  by a clever system of dykes and sluice gates  –  land competition between settlers and Mi’kmaq was minimal.

The Acadians, as the settlers came to be known, were in theory subjects of the king of France, but in practice lived a pretty independent life.  They were a hardy people, as they had to be to survive the harsh winters in Acadie.  They had escaped the downtrodden life of a peasant typical of pre-revolutionary France for a better life in their new homeland.

What they could not escape was the belligerent rivalry between Britain and France competing for colonies in North America.  In 1713, by the Treaty of Utrecht, Acadie and Nova Scotia, were ceded to Britain.   France kept Cape Breton Island and Prince Edward Island where there were more recent French settlers.  France could have hung on to Acadie but preferred to keep its West Indian islands with their lucrative sugar plantations.

The Acadians posed a problem for the British.  Would they side with France in the event of further hostilities?  They were made to take an oath of loyalty to the British crown as a condition of remaining in the new British colony.  They agreed, but on condition that they would not be required to take up arms against either the French or Mi’kmaq Indians.  The British were not too happy with this but nevertheless agreed to the opt-out, though rather more as an understanding than a firm commitment.  The Acadians became known as the ‘Neutral French’.

As the 18th century progressed, British/French colonial rivalry in North America intensified and full scale war broke out with the British determined to conquer New France.  In 1755 the Colonial governor demanded that the Acadians sign a new unconditional oath with no opting out of fighting the French or Mi’kmaq if the need arose.  The Acadians refused.  The governor took the decision to expel the entire Acadian population from the colony.  7000 men, women and children were deported, most of them initially to Boston in the neighbouring colony of Massachusetts.  Secret preparations for the expulsion were made to ensure that few escaped into the forest.  They were transported in New England ships converted like slave ships with extra decks no more than a metre high.  Despite the unsanitary accommodation they were given little chance to go on deck.  Boston was not far but in these conditions disease took its toll, two ships sunk and in all 2000 of the 7000 deported died en route.

To complete the ethnic cleansing the Acadians’ homes and mills were all destroyed and their cattle and goods seized.  As well as being French the Acadians were Catholics, another reason for suspecting their loyalty and in the religious prejudice of the day justifying their harsh treatment.  Of course the British also wanted their land and once these French Catholics had been ousted English Protestants were settled in their place.  By 1763 the English had conquered Quebec and at the Treaty of Paris the whole of ‘New France’  –  present day Quebec Province, Cape Breton Island and Prince Edward  Island  –  was ceded to Britain.  The French population of Cape Breton Island and Prince Edward Island were expelled to France, and amongst them Acadians who had managed to seek refuge there during or prior to the 1755 deportation from Acadie.  3000 were deported from Prince Edward Island alone.  As with the earlier deportations from Nova Scotia in 1755 a large number perished in the process from shipwreck or atrocious conditions aboard ship.

With the British position much more secure with the 1763 Treaty of Paris, the Acadians were allowed back into Nova Scotia in small scattered groups, many working as labourers in the very fields taken from their community at the great expulsion.  From there they spread out into New Brunswick (a separate colony from 1783) and joined the several thousand people who had hidden in the forest there to escape deportation and together became the founders of the new Acadie.  Over the years the Acadians remade their lives as a French speaking minority in a New Brunswick dominated by the English speaking majority.  Towards the end of the 19th century there was an upsurge in Acadian national identity, but the Acadians remained the poorer section of society.  Things improved in the 1950s with political reforms bringing a more equitable distribution of government services; French was made an official language in New Brunswick alongside English and a French language university was established.  With these advances the Acadians’ cultural and economic position in society has been improved without undue strain on the social cohesion of the province.

By no means all Acadians returned to New Brunswick.  Britain’s American colonies were not keen on accepting the deportees and many ended up in Louisiana under alternately Spanish, French and finally American rule.  Some were deported to France and from there made their way to Louisiana too.  Over the years the ‘Cajuns’ of Louisiana in the USA became a separate community to the Acadians of New Brunswick in Canada.

Those familiar with the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 will recognise these sentiments in the 2006 book ‘The Acadians’ by James Laxer, page 60.  A report submitted to the provincial council of Nova Scotia in 1753 ‘concluded that the Acadian inhabitants were occupying the best land in the province.  If the goal was to settle Protestants in the territory, much of this land would have to be confiscated from the Acadians.  “Without that”, the report’s author wrote, “I am sure it would be impossible any large number of Protestants can ever be settled in this country.”  —- In the [report’s] case for the removal of the Acadians, there is a righteous tone that is customarily present in documents justifying the deportation of a people from their homes and communities.  In an interview for this book, Gerald Caplan, a historian who is an expert on ethnic cleansing and genocide, explained that the righteous tone is the hallmark of the ethnic cleanser, that those carrying out such schemes genuinely believe that they are serving a higher purpose, that the removal of one people, invariably depicted as unworthy or evil, will open the way for a shining future for another.’ 

Parallels with the Palestinian experience

In 1948 three quarters of the Palestinian population of what became Israel, more than 700,000 people, were subjected to ethnic cleansing.  Some fled the fighting, many were forcibly expelled; none were allowed back.  Israel stole their land and property and demolished 531 of their villages to make sure they would not return.   The parallel with the Acadians’ experience is remarkably close: the Acadians too were expelled, their property destroyed and their land taken.  In both cases, security was the excuse, but a land grab to settle their own people the overriding motive, whether British Protestants, or Jews on their way to becoming Israelis.

Not all the Palestinians suffered ethnic cleansing.  About a quarter of the Palestinian population in what had become Israel were permitted to remain, though for nearly 20 years under military control.  Many were expelled from their villages and forced to live elsewhere in Israel.  The ethnic cleansing of the Acadians was incomplete too, several thousand escaping deportation by fleeing into the forests or being overlooked in remote communities.

The ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians was not confined to 1948.  Expulsion continued in the 1950s.  In 1967 some 200,000 more Palestinians were expelled from the West Bank and Gaza following their occupation in the Six Day War.  In the Acadie case, 3000 more Acadians were expelled in 1763 following the British takeover of the territory agreed at the treaty of Paris.  In both cases the later expulsion included deportation of refugees from the earlier expulsion.

Did those responsible become bywords for criminal behaviour?  In neither case:  David Ben Gurion is honoured as the great Israeli leader, with an international airport named after him.  Monkton , the General who oversaw the 1755 expulsion, and Lawrence, the Governor who ordered it, were both promoted and have towns named after them.

After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the Acadians were allowed to return, though their former lands were now in the hands of British settlers.  The Palestinians have not been so fortunate, despite UN General Assembly resolution 194, supported multiple times, affirming their right to return.  To this day, with the support of the vast majority of Jewish Israelis, Israel refuses to allow the return of Palestinian refugees, perpetuating the ethnic cleansing begun in 1948.

The later history of the Acadians may point the way to the possibility of a more hopeful future for the Palestinians.  The Acadians’ return proved no threat to the new community of British settlers, nor did it disrupt the wider society with inter-communal strife.  The initial position of the returnees was certainly one of second class citizens both economically and socially, but since their return the Acadians have successfully remade their lives as part of a society with a majority descended from the settlers that had displaced their ancestors.  With the necessary goodwill, whether in a One State or Two State solution, a similar outcome could be possible for both returning Palestinian refugees and the present Palestinian citizens of Israel.  In the case of the Acadians a more equitable distribution of government services was an important factor in achieving this: this certainly applies in Israel too.

Implications for justice for the Palestinians

The ‘Grand Derangement’, or expulsion of the Acadians, is now judged a disgraceful chapter in the history of North America and the colonial history of Britain.  It’s well known in Canada and widely condemned.   It will be known too in some British academic circles, but it will be new to most British people.  As the telling parallels with the situation of the Palestinians become apparent the conviction may grow that whilst we cannot right the wrongs of 18th century history, we can and must do something about justice for the Palestinians in our own time.

The ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians is not just a regrettable episode of history, but an ongoing operation.  Ongoing because it is perpetuated by the refusal of Israel to allow the Palestinians to exercise their right of return, or even to concede that such a right exists: ongoing because house demolitions and expulsions to make way for illegal settlements continue unabated.  Ongoing as evidenced by the keys to their stolen homes many refugees still possess.

Having suffered expulsion, the Palestinians have now endured almost fifty years ­­­­­­­­­­­­of occupation and the slow motion loss of their land to the advancing settlements: ongoing occupation on top of ongoing ethnic cleansing.  In the 18th century there were no international conventions declaring ethnic cleansing a crime against humanity, or the occupier settling its citizens in the land it occupies a war crime.  But this is the 21st century: Britain and the international community have signed up to these conventions, yet there is no sign of our ending their abuse.  We look back in condemnation at the treatment of the Acadians.  How will future generations look back on us and the treatment of the Palestinians we tolerate?

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.