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|Written by Bonita Slunder|
|Sunday, 31 August 2008 19:00|
"What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it" -Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770 - 1831
During a recent trip to St Malo, France, where I was exploring the homeland of my Acadian ancestors, I was drawn to two events separated by more than 250 years yet connected by common themes: expulsion, racism, and political misuse of power. I've come to the conclusion that Hegel was definitely on to something when he said, "We learn from history that we do not learn from history."
In the mid-to-late 1700s, years before Hegel began putting his powerful philosophical thoughts on paper, a Grand Dérangement was happening halfway around the world that would stain humanity like a bad jail house tattoo. Thousands of farmers were killed, their land expropriated, and their farms burned to the ground. And now, hundreds of years later, it is repeating itself in another part of the world: Zimbabwe. Farmers have taken risks over the centuries to distance themselves from the political strategies of powerful kings and queens, rulers and rebels, dictators and deviants in order to have a peaceful existence, simply farming the land and feeding the people.
Here is an extremely brief recap of the story of the Acadians: The Acadians are the original French people who settled in modern day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. starting in the early 17th century. The first French settlers arrived in 1604, but actual colonies didn't take root until the 1630s. In 1730, the Acadians were forced to sign an oath (the Treaty of Utrecht) swearing allegiance to the British Crown but stipulating that they would not have to take up arms against the French or the Mi'kmaq Indians. Then, in 1754 the British government demanded that the Acadians take an oath of allegiance to the Crown that included fighting against the French. Most of them refused (including my ancestors, Alexis Doiron et famille) and quickly found themselves persona non grata in a land they had worked and turned into fertile farms, a land they, for more than a century, called home.
Flash forward to Zimbabwe in 2000: Government supporters of rebel leader Robert Gabriel Mugabe and veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war invade approximately 1,200 white-owned farms as part of a government-backed land grab. It is believed that as head of state, Mugabe endeared himself to the black Zimbabwean rural masses by seizing the land owned by white farmers and giving it to black locals. Sadly, the beneficiaries from this apparently patriotic act were not skilled farmers on a large scale, and they were ill-prepared for the inevitable famine that soon set in. Their inability to ensure the large scale food production of the past was a crippling blow.
In Acadia, a similar event occurred as government officials, led by racially arrogant leader, Governor Charles Lawrence, forced the Acadian farmers off their rightfully owned land. It is strongly believed that in addition to the refusal to take the loyalty oath, one of the major reasons for the deportation was the desire to covet the fertile Acadian farmlands.. Like Mugabe, Lawrence was convinced that these rich meadows would make excellent farms for his chosen ones: new English Protestant settlers. Although there was no military plan in Britain mandating the expulsion, Lawrence was never rebuked for acting without orders. As lieutenant governor, he was responsible for writing the 1755 Acadian deportation order. Like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Lawrence disliked and destroyed any who were foolish enough to defy him. The Mi'kmaq natives were seen as a particular threat. In 1756, Governor Lawrence enacted the British Scalp Proclamation perhaps in retaliation for the assistance given to the Acadians.
Mi'kmaq expert Dr. Daniel Paul explains, "this was typical of English behaviour towards the Mi'kmaq. The ‘tribal liability’ provisions of the treaties, which branded all Natives as guilty, may have also been part of his rationalization when, on May 14, 1756, Lawrence made notice of the bounty offered and, apparently, this shameful declaration is still on the books and the Canadian government has steadfastly refused to rescind it."
BRITISH SCALP PROCLAMATION: 1756
"And, we do hereby promise, by and with the advice and consent of His Majesty's Council, a reward of 30£ for every male Indian Prisoner, above the age of sixteen years, brought in alive; or for a scalp of such male Indian twenty-five pounds, and twenty-five pounds for every Indian woman or child brought in alive: Such rewards to be paid by the Officer commanding at any of His Majesty's Forts in this Province, immediately on receiving the Prisoners or Scalps above mentioned, according to the intent and meaning of this Proclamation."
Recently, the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro told the Security Council that the crisis in Zimbabwe represented not only a moment of truth for democracy in Africa but also posed a challenge to the world.
Few would argue against both Lawrence and Mugabe as racists: Mugabe is racist against the white farmers and Lawrence against the Acadians.
According to one account, after Lawrence's death in 1760, the Board of Trade ordered an investigation into complaints against him. He was criticized for approving excessively large land grants and concealing the true cost of his land policy but was exonerated from the most serious charges, and his role in the expulsion of the Acadians earned very little commentary at the time of his demise.
Mugabe is still alive and well and continues his reign of terror in Zimbabwe. He has become an outspoken, controversial and polarizing figure, and his relationship with the former colonial power, the United Kingdom, has been particularly contentious. Since 1998, Mugabe's policies have increasingly elicited domestic and international denunciation.
But Mugabe has described his critics as "born again colonialists," and both he and his supporters claim that Zimbabwe's problems are the legacy of imperialism, aggravated by Western economic meddling.
As governor of Nova Scotia, Lawrence saw the settlement of the Acadian lands as his most important task. He fell into conflict with many merchants and was the object of formal complaints. Lawrence issued proclamations in 1758 and 1759 seeking settlers for the Acadian lands, a request he directed mainly at New Englanders.
And Mugabe? This spring he defied international and regional calls to postpone an election and pushed ahead with it, resulting in a sixth term for the 84-year-old leader. He has been quoted as remarking, "our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy," giving little hope to the expelled white farmers for a peaceful existence in Zimbabwe.
There are many complex issues rising out of this situation in Africa, and there continues to be great suffering and the white farmers are bearing it alongside the black locals. But, if we look at the Acadians once again, perhaps we can see a faint glimmer of hope for the expelled farmers of Zimbabwe. The Acadians returned to the Maritimes and have maintained a strong proud presence as farmers and fishermen ever since. Some, like my ancestors, defied leaving and hid within the Mi'kmaq community, establishing an Acadian Métis population that to this day celebrates our ability to survive.
The ghost of Hegel whispers in my ear a thought that befits both the Acadian and Zimbabwean farmers:
"To be free is nothing, to become free is everything."
Want to know more? Get it here:
Brasseaux, Founding of New Acadia (1987);
Brasseaux, Scattered to the Wind (1991);
Dominick Graham, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (2000);
Rushton, The Cajuns (1979).