The deportation more than 250 years ago of French-speaking Acadian settlers from the present-day Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island was one of the great crimes of history. The region’s British administrators rounded up as many as 10,000 civilians in 1755, on the eve of a war with France, crammed them into the holds of hastily requisitioned ships, and scattered them to ports along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Another wave of deportations followed in 1758. It was a humanitarian disaster as thousands died in shipwrecks or succumbed to hunger and disease. The descendants of those who survived would re-establish Acadian communities in eastern Canada and find a new home in Louisiana and eastern Texas, where they established today’s vibrant Cajun culture.
Nova Scotia author and journalist Tyler LeBlanc learned about the Acadians and their expulsion in school, but he never suspected his own family had been caught up in this dark episode of history. A chance encounter piqued his interest and began a journey of research and discovery that culminated into his first book, Acadian Driftwood: One Family and the Great Expulsion. The book (LeBlanc borrowed the main title from a 1975 song by The Band about the Acadian ordeal) is a story of loss and survival that vividly recreates the horrors of the expulsion and meticulously traces the life-and-death struggles of his LeBlanc ancestors.
The Southern Review of Books spoke to Tyler about the book and his quest to uncover and reclaim his family’s forgotten past.
How did you discover your Acadian heritage?
I was guiding a bike tour around the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and by chance was working with an amateur Acadian historian and educator. One night after work he asked me what I knew about my surname. Up until that point, all I knew from my family was that our French name was a bit of a mystery. I had been told that at one point several generations ago, a French convict survived a shipwreck somewhere in Cape Breton, swam ashore, and was adopted by a LeBlanc family. So that’s what I told him. He suggested I dig a bit deeper, as he had heard similar stories, and often they were family folk tales that covered up (intentionally or not) an Acadian heritage. He told me my family was most likely Acadian like he was, and if I searched hard enough, I’d find the true story. That’s how it started. Sure enough, once I started digging around for names and talking with Acadian genealogists, I discovered the truth. My ancestors were Acadian and with less work than I thought, I was able to trace the name back to one of the original groups of Acadians settlers that arrived in Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia) in the middle of the 17th century.
How did you trace your family’s history?
I started by asking my great aunt for a few names. She is the knowledge-keeper in our family. She was able to give me the names of her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. With those names, I contacted Stephen White at the University of Moncton, and he was able to plug that information in the wider LeBlanc genealogical network. That gave me the names of each generation all the way back to the first settlers. Once I had established this clear link to the past, I focused on those who would have experienced the Expulsion first-hand and went looking for any information I could find about them. By piecing together the often-complicated and brief mentions of them in history, I was able to trace where they were before the Expulsion, where they were sent or escaped to, and where they ended up afterward (if they survived).
What are some of your most surprising findings?
I was surprised at the sheer cruelty of the Expulsion, once I dug into the nitty-gritty details of it all. British history often markets the event as a simple relocation of a few thousand people, but it was a nasty and brutal deportation. Stuffed below deck like cattle, with only pork fat and flour to eat for weeks, and tossed into the merciless North Atlantic in early winter – this was more of a death sentence than a forced removal. So many died during the deportations of 1755 and 1758 simply while being transported to their destinations. It was pretty shocking. The lack of information surrounding these terrible voyages also shocked me and was the direct impetuous for trying to do my best to reconstruct these fateful journeys from what little information survives, and what I could find about similar historical events, like what many Irish emigrants faced trying to escape the Great Famine.
Why was it important for you to learn the truth about your ancestors?
The first question that popped into my head was: Why did I know so little about Acadian history, and how did we become so separated from the culture? I knew about the Expulsion, and some other small bits of Acadian history from middle and high school, but not nearly as much as I should have known, especially since I grew up in Nova Scotia. I realized that, in order to know more about my family history, I needed to educate myself on the Acadian story, and that maybe through that process I would gain some insight into where the connection was severed in my family, and why. It became important to me to learn what happened to my ancestors because I came to see it as inseparable from my own disconnection from the culture. I also wanted to understand why I previously knew so little about such an important facet of the history of the place I grew up in.
When did you realize this search for your roots could be a book?
During my time working on my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Originally my search for my roots was just a foot in the door to becoming more interested in Acadian history. I considered my genealogical research separate from my historical quest, and with that in mind, entered the MFA with the idea of writing a historical reconstruction of the sinking of the transport Duke William, which claimed the lives of more than 360 deportees (the incident eventually became part of a chapter). However, as I progressed through the program, and with the gentle push from some of my instructors and mentors, I came to see the two stories as inseparable, and if that was the case, then I was going to have to expand the historical lens to cover the entire Expulsion and not just one event linked to it. I was hesitant at first to blend these two interests together into a book, but once I got started, I realized it was a unique way to tell an Expulsion story, and that I had more than enough material to produce a book.
What is your next project?
After I finished Acadian Driftwood, I was determined to write another work of historical nonfiction, something from a more recent era. I figured I had spent enough time in the 18th century. However, I’ve recently started working on two more Acadian stories, one fiction and the other nonfiction. They will be quite different from this book but will look at the Expulsion again, just from an even more intimate perspective.
Acadian Driftwood: One Family and the Great Expulsion
By Tyler LeBlanc
Goose Lane Editions
Published June 2, 2020