SUMMERSIDE – There was a time in her life when Orela Arsenault avoided speaking French for fear she’d be ridiculed.
Growing up in western P.E.I.’s Acadian heartland in Abram-Village, your family, your friends, almost everyone around you spoke French at home – but you spoke English and tried to blend in when you went to town, recalls Arsenault.
“I was really ashamed to talk French,” said the 80-year-old.
“There were so many English people around that were making fun of us.”
But Friday, sitting in a room decked out in French tri-colours and the Stella Maris (yellow star), with accordion and fiddle music reverberating off the walls while her friends and family laughed and danced around her, Arsenault could not have been farther away from the shamed girl she used to be.
“Today, I’m proud that I can talk in French anywhere I go. I’m not ashamed of my language,” she said.
“Today were not made so much fun of. Even if there’s English people around I will talk French because that’s who I am. I am an Acadian.”
Friday was National Acadian Day. A time where the descendants of the original French settlers to the Atlantic Canada region, now spread out all over the world, celebrate their shared heritage and culture.
There were events in several communities in P.E.I., including a big concert featuring 1755 and Visthen in Charlottetown at the 2014 Celebration Zone in the evening.
In Wellington, which hosted the Evangeline area events for the day, rain forced the festivities to move from the local park to the Vanier Community Centre at the last minute. But the switch didn’t seem to dampen spirits; the barbecued hot dogs, Acadian flag-frosted cupcakes and accordion music flowed freely.
More than 200 people packed into the cozy space.
Many of the older folks tell stories like Arsenault’s.
Some are variations on the theme – it wasn’t always considered an advantage to be Acadian on Prince Edward Island.
But ask the same people how they feel about the situation here now and nearly all will express a deep sense of pride their community for keeping the French language alive here and a great sense of hope for its future.
Many of their children and grandchildren go to French schools and they’re interested in retaining their culture, art and music.
“Their proud of their culture, but we have to make sure it’s kept alive so they can see how important it is, how important it was for their ancestors,” said Jeanne Gallant of Abram-Village, and a local French language educator.
Paula Gallant, decided to take that advice to heart for the festivities, as she usually does, she got dressed up from head to toes in the Acadian colours.
She gets decked out in the getup to try and solicit some reaction from younger people, she said.
She finds that young people nowadays are too dour, so she brings some colour to them.
“I find young people today don’t want to do stuff,” she said.
“This older generation, when they’re gone, is this going to continue? But I guess we’ll see,” she said.
Acadian people have a reputation for being lively and enjoying a cultural joy de vivre, but she worries sometimes that this might be a trait that’s in danger.
But she does what she can to help keep it alive.
It’s people like Paula and events like National Acadian Day that will ensure that continued cultural survival, said local resident and writer Marcia Enman.
“We’re lucky were still here. We’re survivors from the deportation so we owe it to our ancestors to be thankful for that,” she said.