Acadians and French people arrived on Prince Edward Island in the early 1700s at a time when the Island was known as “Île-Saint-Jean” by people of European descent. But the Island was already inhabited when they arrived as it had been populated for a very long time by a community of Mi’kmaw people. The Mi’kmaw called the Island Kjiktu’lnu, which means “our great boat,” and Epekwitk, which means “cradled on the waves.”
After losing Acadia to England in 1713, France moved to establish a colony on Île-Saint-Jean. The first settlers from France and Acadia arrived in 1720. The French mostly engaged in cod fishery, while Acadians mostly settled as farmers.
Population growth in the colony proved to be slow. Twenty-eight years after the arrival of the first settlers, the population of settlers of Acadian and French origin on the Island had only reached 735 people. However, a rapid population growth occurred after 1748, when many families from Nova Scotia came to settle on the Island after British authorities threatened deportation. Over six years, the population grew to reach about 3000 people. Many other Acadian families sought shelter on the Island when Deportation began in 1755 in Nova Scotia.
Sadly, the colony’s demise occurred shortly after in 1758. After conquering the Fortress of Louisbourg on Île Royale (Cape Breton) during the Seven Years’ War, the British took possession of Île-Saint-Jean. A large proportion of the population was deported to France, and a good number of families fled to mainland. A few families managed to remain on the Island, maintaining an uninterrupted Acadian presence on the Island. In 1763, the Island is ceded to Great Britain with the Treaty of Paris, and it becomes an official British colony.
Slowly rebuilding 1759-1860
The 1758 Acadian deportation on Île-Saint-Jean scattered the Acadian population as far as France, the West Indies and Louisiana. Among Acadian families who avoided deportation, many found their way to refugee camps near the Restigouche and Miramichi rivers, but a select few managed to stay on the Island.
However, several families came back to settle on the Island in the following years. This required a certain adaptation to a new life in an English-speaking colony under a British and Protestant government. Acadian families faced a big challenge in acquiring land, as they could not reclaim possession of the land that they had once owned.
The Island had been divided into 67 lots (or districts) under British rule. These lots were assigned to British influential men, and these men were given the responsibility of bringing in settlers as tenants to work on the land. Therefore, Acadian families who wanted to get established as farmers had to lease land from these large landowners.
This land system proved to be challenging for Acadians, as well as for settlers from Scotland, Ireland and England. At times, when they were unable to pay rent, Acadian families were forced to abandon their land and start clearing again elsewhere, or even leave the Island. At this point, the Acadian population was scattered into small groups from one tip of the Island to the other.
Acadians managed to make a living by farming and fishing, but also they also worked as loggers, navigators, and carpenters. Mostly illiterate people, they were truly their own community on the Island due to their Francophone and Catholic identity. In fact, most Acadians would marry within their own cultural group.
Other Islanders perceived them as hard workers who seem cheerful and content with their lot. However, they also viewed them as a class of inferior and uneducated people who clung to their old traditions.
Things begin to change for the Acadian community in the early 1800s with the opening of a few schools. Young men started entering the teaching profession. In 1854, a young man from Tignish by the name of Stanislaus F. Perry was elected to the Island Legislative Assembly. This moment was an indication that Island Acadians were beginning to emerge from isolation and starting to participate in public life.
Great awakening 1861-1960
Significant changes started occurring for Island Acadians during the mid-1800s, reflecting changes that were occurring for Acadians throughout the Maritime provinces. Several institutions promoting community development were established. A small educated ruling class was formed, and important initiatives began to be implemented in the Acadian community.
The number of public schools started to climb. Private convent schools for girls, directed by the Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Montréal nuns, opened in some Acadian parishes. Many boys continued on to college education. Institutions were also emerging to support economic development, such as the Farmers’ Bank of Rustico. During this time, young Acadian men started going into business.
In 1881, Island Acadians attended the first National Acadian Convention in Memramcook, New Brunswick, to discuss the future of Acadian people. During this convention, they selected a national holiday, Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, to be celebrated on August 15th. The second convention was held in Miscouche in 1884. During this meeting, they discussed the importance of maintaining French education as a way to preserve the French language in the province. At the same convention, Acadians selected a flag, a national anthem, and a motto, “L’union fait la force”.
In the years that followed, several initiatives were taken to revitalize the Island’s Acadian community, including the Association des instituteurs acadiens de l’Île-du-Prince-Édouard, the French-language newspaper L’Impartial and Société Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin.
Despite all this, maintaining French as the language in Acadian communities proved to be very difficult. School systems were giving limited space to teaching French, and many Acadian families were living among English-speaking families in their villages. Many Acadians moved to English-speaking cities such as Charlottetown and Summerside to find work and, generally, the French language was poorly valued by the Island population. Considering this, Acadians worked on acquiring English skills so as to better integrate Island society.
For a long time, the Acadian identity remained strong in many families and villages, especially until the mid-1900s. With the advent of radio and television, automobiles, electricity and road paving, Acadian communities became less and less isolated, and increasingly open to the English-speaking world. With the loss of the French language came the loss of many Acadian traditions.
In 1955, large patriotic demonstrations were held throughout Acadia to mark the bicentenary of the 1755 Deportation. These events reminded Acadians of their history and the importance of preserving their identity, culture and language. This bicentennial provided many benefits, including the creation, in 1955, of the Société historique acadienne de l’Île-du-Prince-Édouard (Acadian Historical Society of Prince Edward Island) and the opening of École régionale Évangéline (Evangeline Regional School) in 1960. In a way, these events heralded another important awakening among Prince Edward Island Acadians.
Years of great change 1961-2020
Prince Edward Island has undergone major social, cultural, and economic changes since the 1960s. A wind of change was blowing on the Island and particularly on the Acadian community. More than ever, the French language and Acadian culture were valued.
To stimulate economic development and modernization in the province, the federal and provincial governments jointly developed and funded the Prince Edward Island Comprehensive Development Plan. This plan, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, was implemented in 1969 and was a significant contribution to modernizing the school system, diversifying the economy, and increasing government services. The standard of living of Islanders started showing vast improvement.
Also in 1969, the Canadian Parliament passed the Official Languages Act, which established English and French as Canada’s official languages. The federal government then implemented programs to encourage and support bilingualism in Canada and to support minority language communities. The Acadian community quickly benefited from these programs. The federal government recognized Société Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin as the voice of the Island’s Francophone community and granted some funding to the Société to allow it to better develop Francophone life on the Island.
Société Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin has worked hard to provide Acadian and Francophone Islanders the required tools to foster development. It has continued to help set up several cultural, educational, and economic associations which are contributing to strengthen French-speaking life in the province. One of its most significant achievements is the establishment of six school-community centres.
Over the years, major transformations have also occurred in the Island’s population in general. Large families are disappearing, the average age of Islanders is increasing, the number of people earning a living in the fishing and farming industries is decreasing, the rural population is declining in favour of the cities, and religious practice is declining.
Since the late 1960s, Prince Edward Island’s population has become increasingly ethnically diverse with the arrival of people from many countries. Thus, the Francophone community, which was made up almost exclusively of Acadians from the Island, is now continually enriched by Francophones from many countries, but also from other Canadian provinces.
We would like to thank the Prince Edward Island Department of Education and Lifelong Learning for allowing us to use this text from L’Acadie de l’Île-du-Prince-Édouard, 300 ans d’histoire by Georges Arsenault and Linda Lowther, published in 2021 by Chenelière Education.