Flying the Flag at Port-la-Joye

2002 par John Eldon Green

John Eldon Green


Canadians observe the constant migration of refugees around the world with a certain measure of detachment.  It is something that happens elsewhere, to other people, from which we have been mercifully spared.  We live here in peace, free from terrorism, unaware of its real and lasting effects.  We are comfortable, our families safe, and our only threat is sickness.

Imagine our reaction then if an army suddenly invaded us this month, because of a war in a faraway continent among people of whom we know little, speaking a language not our own.  The strange soldiers order us from our homes at gunpoint, permitting us nothing of our possessions but what we can carry, and after a forced march of many miles gather us in fields near the administrative centre of the Island.  All the while we protest that we have done them no harm, and indeed do not have the means to harm them.  We have no army, have never been warlike, and have caused trouble to no one.

Finally assembled in a field without the least shelter from the elements, we are told that we will be transported from the Island into exile – mothers and children in one boat, fathers and single men in another.  Our destination is a matter of indifference to those in charge of our expulsion, and so is our fate.  As the days pass we live in terror, hoping for a change of heart, even without knowing how we would survive the coming winter if the invaders did relent.  Some of us may escape and perhaps join up with the invisible Mi’kmaq people who will accommodate us, but most of us will be shipped out, many to our deaths.  Some of our families will never be reunited.

This scenario is so far-fetched it is embarrassing even to write it, yet it describes what happened to the first French settlers on PEI, 40 long years after they became established here.  Upwards of 4,000 people – some say maybe 6,000 – were gathered in the fields next to the French administrative quarters at Port-la-Joye in late October, 1758 and deported from the colony they had carefully and patiently built from scratch.  In due course the British who replaced them would establish a fort on the site, named after the British General responsible for the expulsion.

The site of Port-la-Joye and Fort Amherst, on a picturesque point of land across the harbour from Charlottetown, is now recognized as a National Historic Site.  The breastworks for the Fort are clearly visible, but it requires imagination to recognize anything of Port-la-Joye.  A nearby Interpretation Centre provides a summary of the history of the times and an account of the expulsion, but it is a lame account, without a sense of the suffering of the people, nor a tribute to those who survived to rebuild the present day Acadian community – their language, culture and religion still intact, as promised them in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris.

People speak of lands made holy by the blood of martyrs, but I believe that lands can also be made sacred by the suffering of innocent people, such as we have done in dedicating monuments in France to Canadian soldiers who served there, among those who died.  When I visit Port-la-Joye/Fort Amherst I feel a sense of reverence in the silence of the place, made all the more

profound by the lack of visitors.  It is the most important historical site in Atlantic Canada, being the seat of two earliest governments as well as the site of an expulsion of thousands of innocents, and yet it is largely ignored.  It is ignored because we have not known what to make of it.  The Acadian people have now lived for two hundred and forty-three years with the memory of the expulsion, much of that time spent in cautious dread of the English majority, asking mostly to be left alone.  For our part, our governments undertook to make them English.  Until only recently, in terms of Island history, their school books were in English, their curriculum was an English curriculum, and classes were to be conducted in English.  The services of their government were conducted entirely in English and little accommodation was made for those who could not understand the language.  We have not understood their persistence in remaining French.

For many reasons, I have long thought that the National Historic Site should be turned over to an Acadian organization for management, under contract with Parks Canada.  The Acadian people should be welcomed back to Port-la-Joye in time for their major celebration in 2004, not to commemorate the expulsion but rather to celebrate their return and prideful survival among us.

Port-la-Joye/Fort Amherst should be a major attraction for visitors, not only for its surpassing beauty but also because there is no better setting for telling people the history of our province, and why it is a province.  Some years ago we were invited to prepare a management plan for the site, which was set aside at the time because of the federal government’s total and over-riding commitment to accountancy rather than program development.  I believe it is now time for the plan to be dusted off, and who would have a better cause to do it than an Acadian organization through a management contract with the Government of Canada.

 John Eldon Green is a descendant of refugees from the American Revolution who settled on PEI, on lands cleared by French pioneers.