- From Migrant to Acadian: A North American Border People, 1604–1755
From Migrant to Acadian is the product of a life's work. As British-born Naomi Griffiths explains in her introduction, 'In 1953 I met students from New Brunswick at the University of London, students who spoke French as a mother tongue and who saw themselves as Canadian but for whom that identity was coloured by the sense of a strong Acadian heritage.' Intrigued by this 'concrete example of the capacity of small communities to retain a distinct sense of local identity in the face of powerful forces of assimilation,' in 1956 Griffiths emigrated to Canada to work with Alfred G. Bailey at the University of New Brunswick. The following year she finished her MA thesis, 'The Acadian Deportation: A Study in Historiography and Literature.' Since then, she writes, '[Acadian] history has been for me as much an avocation as a professional concern.' Between the twists and turns of a varied academic career, in administration and out, Griffiths continued to explore the history of Acadia; it was the focus of her 1970 PHD thesis at the University of London, numerous articles, and three books, the most recent, The Context of [End Page 240] Acadian History, 1686–1784 (1993), being an outline for the present work. It is appropriate to think of From Migrant to Acadian as Naomi Griffiths' magnum opus.
From Migrant to Acadian is a big book. The text runs to 464 pages, the notes to 117, and the bibliography to 29. There are eleven maps. Apart from its daunting size, the book holds other challenges for the reader. This is not another engaging narrative of Acadia's succession of compelling stories. Rather it is a detailed scholarly analysis of the formation of a distinct people under trying circumstances. The introductions and conclusions to chapters are sketchy and summaries infrequent, so the non-specialist may have trouble maintaining an overall sense of perspective. The reader's effort will, however, be rewarded. The text and footnotes touch on almost every bone of contention, large and small, from the evidence for intermarriage between French settlers and the Mi'kmaq to the motivations of the architect of expulsion, Charles Lawrence. Acadia's intermittent censuses and ships' passenger lists are sifted for all they can possibly reveal, and the multi-layered meanings of treaties and contracts identified and correlated. Individual characters emerge as if under the gaze of a sly old friend who, while understanding, will not be fooled. The command of primary and secondary material is breathtaking.
From Migrant to Acadian is an important book. Indeed it is now the most important scholarly work on the Acadians and likely to remain so for many years. At its core is a search for the roots of identity. 'What has made Acadian history of such vital interest to me,' Griffiths writes, 'is that it is about men and women who decided to identify their sense of community by the word "Acadia" and in doing so created a people where none had been before.' This process did not take place in splendid isolation but rather within the fraught commercial and strategic web of two rival empires, a region bounded by New England and New France, and a neighbourhood occupied by Mi'kmaq, Malecite, and Abenaki. Griffiths captures each twist of this kaleidoscope of contexts, and the implications for the developing Acadian community. The most important Acadian reaction to the uncertainty of their position was the adoption of a policy of neutrality. Initially a practical response to external threats, over time it emerged as a conviction that Acadians had the right to a level of self-determination that was greater than the government of Nova Scotia was ultimately willing to grant. The expulsion was, in this sense, a denial of a fundamental tenet of Acadian identity. And it is with the expulsion that From Migrant to Acadian rather abruptly ends. One wishes for more, but we should rejoice at what Naomi Griffiths has given us – not...