Beyond Words

Rediscovering Acadia

by Mireille Leblanc – Moncton, New Brunswick

Some moments in life become engraved in a person’s memory like words on a monument. For Donald DesRoches, two different events cemented his attachment to his language and his culture.

A double awakening
The first took place while he was a student at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. He paid a visit to the church at the Grand-Pré National Historic SiteWorld Wide Web site, which commemorates the Acadian deportation. In this small stone church, surrounded by majestic willow trees, the name of each Acadian family deported from Grand-Pré is engraved on a series of bronze plaques. “My name is DesRoches, and although some people spoke French in my family, I never thought of myself as Acadian. I saw myself as a non-ethnic Canadian who spoke French. When I read the list of Acadian families that were deported, my eyes froze on the name DesRoches. My God, it was like discovering who I was! That was a defining moment,” he remembers.

Evangeline Church
Grand-Pré National Historic Site in Nova Scotia
Credits: François Gaudet

This sense of belonging was reinforced by another pivotal event that occurred one summer day, while visiting his paternal grandmother when he was still at university. He was sitting with his grandmother in her living room, making small talk. “Then, at one point, she turned to me and said, ‘I guess you’re the only one in the family who speaks French. I wish we could keep the language going in our family.’ I remember that as if it were yesterday, and it hit me that she had a really strong attachment to French,” he recalls.

English as a mother tongue
Donald did not always have this impression, because, even though his family had an Acadian background, they mostly spoke in English. He was born in 1965 in the small community of Barryville, near Miramichi, New Brunswick, and the only school in town was English. “Everyone in the community went to this English school. There was this idea that Acadian French was of a lower quality than the French we learned at school,” says Donald, remembering the mentality that prevailed in the 1970s.

Up until Grade 12, Donald studied in English, but he took French classes whenever he could. He spoke English at home with his parents and his six siblings, and he sometimes spoke French with store clerks in neighbouring Francophone communities. His family attended the English-language church in town, but Donald would occasionally do a reading in French. So even though English was his mother tongue, French was always waiting on the sidelines.

Return of a romance language
When the time came to choose a university, Donald picked Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. “Maybe it was a form of teenage rebellion, since Université Sainte-Anne was pretty far from my parents,” he says, laughing. “But it was also clear in my mind that, in order not to lose French, I had to speak it more often.”

While studying science in this small Nova Scotia Acadian town, Donald met Lorna Burke. Lorna was enrolled in a French immersion program, and she would eventually become his wife. Born in Prince Edward Island, Lorna had also been raised in English, but had a fondness for the French language of her grandmother. After graduating, the couple settled in Prince Edward Island in 1986, and they now have two children, Mathieu and Chantelle. “Even though Lorna and I are two Anglophones, the language we met in, and the language we communicate in, has always been French. There was never a question what language we’d raise our children in!” Donald exclaims.

Nesting in both languages
Mathieu and Chantelle have always spoken French with their parents. Donald and Lorna have worked hard to promote the French language at home, with a French-speaking babysitter and French DVDs. Even their computer runs on French Windows software. Technically, their children are not entitled to attend school in French because their parents’ first language is English, but Donald and Lorna asked the school board for an exemption so they could enrol their children in a French-language school. Since they live in a province where English is spoken by the majority, the DesRoches children have easily learned English in school and in their community. “We would like our children to be fluent in both languages. Lorna and I had to work hard to learn a second language, and we now want to give that language to our children,” he says.

Comparing his children’s situation to his own childhood in Barryville, Donald sees how society has evolved. “I think it was easier for us than it was for our parents. Speaking two languages is now looked upon positively. In my parents’ time, it had negative connotations, or people were ambivalent about it. Society has changed. I think that we’ve done well, and we’re happy with our decision. Our children are bilingual and they have access to both our languages and both our cultures,” concludes Donald. He believes that everyone should learn at least two languages, and he even hopes to enrol his children in Spanish or Mandarin classes.